photo of El Castillo by Darrian Hale

Note: Underlined words in text are links to figures or photographs by Linda Freeman.

The development of energy resources has played a pivotal role in the history of Mexico. This paper will briefly describe the major energy eras of Mexico (figure 1), the current consumption of energy in Mexico, and the distribution and development of the major energy resources in Mexico, with a special emphasis on the Yucatan. The paper will conclude with a closer look at the use of energy in the Yucatan.

The Energy Eras of Mexico

The first era of energy use occurred through colonial times. Wood was the primary source of energy. Until the introduction of cattle and horses during the colonial regime, there were no beasts-of-burden in this part of the world; consequently, there were no animals or dung which could be utilized as an energy source and humans provided much of the energy needed.

Coal was the new energy resource of the second era, but wood continued to be important. The importance of coal was its use in the mining industry. Wood was used for smelting until the discovery of coal in the 1880s. Coal allowed the expansion of the railroads and industry, vital to the economic growth of Mexico.

With the discovery of large deposits of oil at the turn of the century, Mexico entered a new era. To assure her place in the world market, Mexico nationalized oil in 1939. This action led to a national pride based, in part, on the feeling of being in control of ones own resources. This relationship between oil and national pride has governed most of the economic policies developed by Mexico since 1939. The drop of oil prices in the 1970s precipitated a national crisis as financing was based on high oil prices. Mexico was unable to pay her debts and an economic crisis ensued which has continued to the present.

Mexico has reached a new era in terms of energy. Although fossil fuels will continue to be of major importance, this new era is marked by the emergence of renewable resources, especially hydropower, solar power, and wind power. Also, the development of NAFTA and the passage of new laws in Mexico in the 1990s will have a profound effect on the expansion and restructuring of energy in Mexico, especially in those regions which are less developed.

Energy Eras of Mexico

Figure 1. Energy Eras of Mexico.

Current Energy Consumption

Electricity is currently available to 95% of Mexico's population (Ministry of Energy, 1995) but energy demands are increasing rapidly, at a rate of 5.1% (Heroles, 1996a). Most of this increase stems from a growth in the number of users of electricity, the development of industries, and new laws which allow foreign investment (Ministry of Energy, 1995). Also, not only are there more users, but the consumers are increasing their consumption of electricity. In 1993, the per capita consumption of energy in Mexico was 56.5 million BTUs as compared to 325.6 BTUs per person in the U.S. (DOE, 1996). As Mexico develops, so will its appetite for energy. Indeed, Mexico is planning on adding 12,000 megawatts to their power grid by the year 2005, which is a 35% increase in power (Kraul, 1996).

When one compares energy consumption by source between Mexico and the world (figure 2), it is apparent that different resources are being utilized in differing amounts. Many nations have little access to petroleum products, which brings the world's average consumption of oil to less than 10%. Mexico, on the other hand, is heavily dependent on petroleum products. Mexico has 5.1% of the world's oil reserves (Hinrich, 1996) which amounts to 51 billion barrels of crude oil (DOE, 1995). Pemex is the world's fifth largest oil company, and one third of Mexico's income is from the export of oil (DOE, 1995).

Although Mexico has 70 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves (DOE, 1995), natural gas usage is slightly less than the world average. This is because Mexico cannot afford the cost of developing pipelines, and Mexico will continue to import gas from the United States. However, Mexico, Canada, and the U.S. are currently working on plans for gas distribution projects (DOE, 1996) so natural gas, from both the U.S. and Mexico, will gain importance in the years to come.

Another item of interest is the fact that renewable energy resources supply a large percentage of Mexico's energy needs. Traditional sources of energy, such as wood, are not even counted in these charts, yet 5% of Mexico's energy is in the form of traditional fuels as compared to 1% in the U.S. (Hinrichs, 1996). Most of the renewable energy counted in the chart is in the form of hydroelectricity. Mexico is just beginning to extend its wind and solar power usage which will further increase the percentage that renewable resources contribute towards the energy supply of Mexico.

Energy Consumption by Source

Figure 2. Energy consumption by source, 1992.


Prior to Spanish colonization, wood supplied the major source of energy in Mexico. During the colonial period, wood was used to make charcoal for the smelting process in mining. The oak woodlands around the rich silver region in the Mesa del Sur were nearly denuded by the end of the 1500s and much of the vegetation in other mining regions was destroyed; however, the introduction of mercury (quicksilver), in the late 1550s, to extract the silver reduced the rate of destruction (West and Augelli, 1989).

Forests have also been impacted by slash-and-burn agriculture, overgrazing, the use of charcoal for railroads, plantation agriculture, and the cutting of hardwoods for dyes and lumber. It is estimated that, at the beginning of Spanish colonization, 60% of Mexico was covered by forests. Now, less than 25% of the country is forested (West and Augelli, 1989). However, wood continues to be an important source of energy, especially for cooking, in regions which have not yet been provided with electricity or natural gas.

The traditional use of wood remains important on the Yucatan Peninsula. Men and boys can still be seen carrying sticks of wood on their backs with a tumpline on their foreheads (as depicted in ancient Maya glyphs) or in bundles fastened to their bicycles. The burning of wood for fertilizer in the slash-and-burn system of agriculture also continues to be practiced today.

Although the tropical rain forests and tropical deciduous forests have long been modified by human use, the depletion of the forests on the Yucatan Peninsula has mainly occurred during the last few centuries. The production of cattle on the haciendas has played a role in deforestation since early colonial times. Currently, on the peninsula, most of the cattle are raised in the eastern portion of the state of Yucatan (Brannon and Baklinoff, 1987).

The logwood and dyewood industry carried on by the British in Belize during the late 1800s extended into the Quintana Roo region and had a heavy impact on the forest there (Konrad, 1991). Chicle, from the sapodilla (chicozapote) tree, became an important economic activity in the Yucatan by the 1890s and when the U.S. included gum in rations during the First World War, production increased. In 1919, chicle production in Quintana Roo totaled over a million kilos (Konrad,1991). Excessive tapping of the latex has led to the decline of these trees. Also, since chicle production involves boiling the latex, trees were burned to supply the energy for this need.

The Maya had long utilized henequen for use in making hammocks and cordage, but henequen production didn't became a prominent economic activity until after Mexican Independence. At first, henequen mainly provided cordage to bind the wheat grown in the United States, but the growth of world trade after World War I led to an increased need for ship rigging with a corresponding increase in the global desire for henequen products. Much of the global demand for cordage was at first supplied from henequen production in the northwestern portion of the Yucatan Peninsula. Not only were forests removed to plant the native agaves, but steam was needed in its production (Brannon and Baklinoff, 1987; Wells, 1991) and wood and agricultural by-products supplied the energy used to produce the steam.


Bituminous coal was discovered in the Sabinas Coal Basin in the 1880s. This energy resource allowed the expansion of the railroads and led to further industrialization (West and Augelli, 1989). Bituminous coal can also be found in Chihuahua, Chiapas, Jalisco, and Veracruz. Anthracite, a higher quality coal, can be found in smaller quantities in Durango, Michoacan, Puebla, Sonora, and Tamualipas (Electric Library, 1991). No coal is found on the limestone Yucatan Peninsula. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, in 1995 Mexico had around 4.4 billion tons of coal reserves. However, through the use of new techniques of exploration Pemex has determined that there are 6.6 billion tons of coal found in four principal regions, the rich Sabinas Coal Basin in Coahilla, in nearby Nuevo Leon, in Oaxaca, and, to a lesser extent, in Sonora (Heroles, 1996a).

The Grupo Acerero del Norte Mining Division (GAN) has two coal plants in operation in Coahuila, Carbón I and Carbón II. With new installations completed at Carbón II, these plants now produce a total of 2,600 MW, providing approximately 6% of the total electricity which will be produced in Mexico in 1996 (GAN, 1996).

Changes in the energy laws during the 1990s, in both the United States and Mexico, will have an enormous impact on the development of energy resources in Mexico. Although Mexico was not planning on extensively developing coal plants because of new air pollution standards, changes brought about by NAFTA will make U.S. coal much more readily available in Mexico (DOE, 1995). The Mexican "Program for the Development and Restructuring of the Energy Sector, 1995-2000" now allows private investment and development of energy resources (Heroles, 1996a). This will enable the development or expansion of coal-operated power plants through foreign investment, which can more readily afford the extra cost of required pollution-control measures. Concerns do exist, however, about the pollution caused by coal. On March 29, 1996, the Secretary of the Environment, Natural Resources, and Fish assured citizens of both the U.S. and Mexico that "emissions from the coal-powered Carbón II plant have not significantly deteriorated the quality of air in Big Bend National Park" (Breves, 1996).


Although petroleum products were utilized by the indigenous population prior to Spanish occupation and later by the Spanish missionaries, it wasn't until oil was discovered at the turn of the century along the Gulf Coast near Tampico (West and Augelli, 1989) that oil became an economically important product.

During the next few years, American and British interests began drilling further south around the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. In 1910, they hit it big in the Faja de Oro zone and by the early 1920s Mexico was second in world production of oil. Due to the continued impact of the Revolution, the entry of Venezuela onto the oil production scene in the 1930s and globally hard times, Mexican oil production fell. To lessen the impact of the global economy, and to bolster Mexican nationalism and economic well-being, President Cárdenas nationalized oil in 1939 (Herzog, 1959) and Petroleos Mexicanos (PEMEX) was formed.

With the growth of industrial development in the aftermath of WWII, Mexico continued to develop economically and became the world's 4th largest producer of oil (West and Augelli, 1989). There was continued growth through the 1970s, when a major oil field was discovered in the Gulf of Mexico and in the Reforma district of Chiapas. Oil prices were high at this time and Mexico continued to expand with heavy borrowing based on these high oil prices. Events in the Middle East, including the oil embargo of 1973, the Iranian Revolution of 1979, and the Gulf War of 1991, resulted in a drop in oil prices to the detriment of Mexican economic development. During the 1980s and 90s Mexico faced a heavy debt burden and now, for the first time since oil was nationalized in 1939, Mexico is making major changes to some of its oil-related policies.

Today, Mexico is the world's 5th largest producer of oil, the mainstay of the Mexican economy. The major fields extend from the Tex-Mex border along the Gulf Coast south to Veracruz and in Tabasco and Campeche, in the Bay of Campeche, and in Chiapas. Although the oil fields are not on the Yucatan Peninsula proper, these places are immediately adjacent to the peninsula and Campeche Banks is on the continental shelf. Thirty eight new fields have been discovered since 1992 and reserves totaled about 51 billion barrels in 1995 (DOE, 1996).

Enormous changes have been made in Mexico's energy policy, but Mexico's Constitution guarantees that the state will continue to hold a monopoly over the petroleum industry (DOE, 1996). However, the changes wrought by the new laws will have a large impact on the petroleum industry. Already the U.S. and other countries are scrambling to make deals with Pemex (Kraul 1996; DOE 1996). Shell Oil has already signed agreements with Mexico (DOE, 1996).

New refineries of several types, will start to sprout around the Gulf near the source of the petro-products. Jobs will be made, which may encourage people from the interior of the peninsula to migrate to coastal towns or Mérida in search of work. Political and environmental concerns have already surfaced in the region. The February 1996 signing of agreements with the Zapatistas (the Chiapas Rebellion coincided with the creation of NAFTA) is considered an important move towards the stabilization of the Mexican economy (DOE, 1996). Many people are worried about the change oil development brings to places such as Reforma. On a 1964 map, Reforma shows up as a village but today there are over 30,000 people, a refinery, and hundreds of oil wells. Many of the residents are concerned about air and water pollution that are readily visible (Miller, 1992).

Natural Gas

Most of Mexico's natural gas is found in association with oil (DOE, 1995). Gas deposits can be found south of the Río Grande in northeastern Mexico and along the Gulf Coast encircling the Bay of Campeche. Even though natural gas only supplies 17% of Mexico's energy, it will become more and more important. The Mérida III project, which should be nearing completion, will supply natural gas through an additional 435 miles of pipeline to the three Mexican states on the peninsula; Yucatan, Campeche, and Quintana Roo (DOE, 1995). Currently, gas is delivered on the peninsula by trucks. The soon-to-increase availability of gas throughout the peninsula will probably change the rate of consumption there. Natural gas will also be available for use in the Mérida power plant. This will be an important benefit for Mérida, which has a major problem with air pollution.

Nuclear Power

Uranium deposits are found on the east slope of the Sierra Madre Occidental, mainly in Chihuahua and Durango, and in Sonora, Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas, and Oaxaca. No deposits of uranium are found on the Yucatan Peninsula. Reserves are estimated at over 14 MT, but exploration has been discontinued (Heroles, 1996a). Laguna Verde is the only nuclear power plant in operation in Mexico and, with its recent addition, will produce about 6% of the total electricity supply in 1996.

Geothermal Power

More than 500 geothermal centers have been located in Mexico and include fumeroles, volcanic mud, sulfur springs, and water wells. Geothermal plants are located in Baja California, Michoacán, and Puebla and further development is expected. The geothermal energy produced in 1994 was equivalent to 25 million barrels per day of petroleum (Heroles, 1996a). The peninsula is not tectonically active so thermal power is not available (figure 3).

Tectonic activity in southeastern Mexico. Source: West and Augelli, 1989.

Figure 3. Tectonic activity in southeastern Mexico. Source: West and Augelli, 1989.


The rivers of Mexico (figure 4) provide another source of energy. In 1937, prior to the nationalization of oil, the Federal Commission of Electricity was founded and they began to develop hydroelectric power (Herzog, 1959). By the 1950s hydroelectricity was an important component of electrical development and by 1985 hydroelectricity comprised 31% of the total electricity generated (West and Augelli, 1989). In 1995, 34% of the electricity generated was hydroelectric. The potential hydroelectric production is estimated to be about 160,000 kilowatt hours (Heroles, 1996a). The rivers thus far developed are the Grijalva in Chiapas, which supplied about 43% of the hydroelectric power produced in 1994; the Balsas River in Guerrero, producing 21% of the total; the Santiago River in Nayarit, producing over 10%; and the Papaloapan, Pánuco, Yaqui, El Fuerte, Culiacán, and Sinaloa producing the remainder (Heroles, 1996b). The only major rivers in the Yucatan, the Hondo and the Usamacinta, are found along the western boundary of the peninsula.

The Usamacinta River, which divides the Yucatan Peninsula from the rest of Mexico, drains an area of 41,000 square miles which supports the "largest surviving rainforest in North America" (Wilkerson, 1985). While this river does provide a possible site for developing hydroelectricity (6 possible dam sites have been located), political, economic, and environmental concerns have postponed the project.

Map showing rivers of Mexico which provide hydropower.

Figure 4. Rivers of Mexico which provide hydropower.

Other Renewable Energy Resources

Most of Mexico's population is concentrated around Mexico City in the Mesa Central, and has been since pre-Columbian times. This has resulted in the power system of Mexico focusing on the core region. The unequal development of the power grid has probably led to the earlier development of renewable energy resources in Mexico. As was stated earlier, renewable energy resources made up 30% of Mexico's energy supply in 1992 (figure 2), and renewable energy is expected to increase in importance.

Many factors contribute to the expected increase in the development of renewable energy resources. There is a seemingly common desire to bring electricity to all the people of the world who currently live without it (and want it), and in Mexico this is a stated goal (Ministry of Energy, 1995). Many of these people live in remote regions which would be costly to connect to the existing power grid. Alternative energies are well-suited for remote locations as many of the renewable energy systems are stand-alone systems. The Yucatan Peninsula is one of the remote regions of Mexico and the development of alternative energies is being pursued there.

Many parts of the country are sunny enough to consider the use of solar power. Even in the cloudiest month, there is an average of at least 4 hours of sunlight each day throughout Mexico (Schaeffer, 1994). The southwestern United States and adjacent Mexico receive the most sun in North America with up to 6 hours per day during the cloudiest month of the year. The peninsula does possess the characteristics needed for solar power with a minimum monthly average of 4½ hours of sun each day, but the higher production costs of solar power have slowed its development. Although many renewable energy sources are more expensive, their price continues to drop, and the price is usually lower when the cost of bringing in outside power is considered.

As previously mentioned, hydroelectricity and geothermal energy are both well-developed in Mexico, but are of little importance in the Yucatan. The World Bank is planning on financing wind projects in Mexico and the United Nations has already installed photovoltaic systems in 60,000 villages in Mexico (DOE, 1996). Other sources of renewable energy are available on a limited scale. They include ethanol from sugar cane and methanol from manure. Biomass resources, including firewood, account for almost 7% of the country's energy supply (Heroles, 1996a).

A Closer Look at the Yucatan

Prior to the Mexican Revolution, Mérida, the capital of the state of Yucatán, had electricity (before Mexico City) and the state was one of the richest in the Republic (Brannon and Baklanoff, 1987). This was mainly due to the henequen industry, one of the few industries in operation at the turn of the century. Railroads had been laid to transport the henequen, but this development was confined to the state of Yucatan. However, due to increased global competition, a drop in world prices for henequen, agricultural reforms following the Revolution and, later, development of synthetic materials, the Yucatan became one of the poorest states in the country. This halted the growing demand for energy until after World War II. Even by 1950, only 13% of the Mexican population had electricity (Herzog, 1959). Hence, in the Yucatan, wood continued to be the major source of energy until the late 1960s, when the Mexican government began developing tourism in Cancun, located in what is now the state of Quintana Roo.

Mérida currently has two power plants and a third (Mérida III) is underway. Oil and gas pipelines lead to Mérida and plans have been developed to supply gas to all three Mexican states on the Yucatan Peninsula. Major power lines criss-cross the peninsula and more will soon be added. Smaller powerlines take off from the main ones and bring electricity to more and more villages each year. Those villages which are too remote to connect to the grid are receiving alternative sources of energy, mainly through photovoltaic systems. New wind projects are on the drawing board but already wind power is a notable feature of the Yucatecan landscape. Although absent from the Puuc region, windmills dot the countryside but are apparently only used for pumping water from the wells.

One of the major goals of developing the power system is to stimulate growth in the economy. For the Yucatan Peninsula, the tourism industry is extremely important. This industry requires a well-developed power system. It is interesting to note that hotels which do not have a back-up generator in case of power outages supply candles for the occasion. Transportation is another necessary component of tourism along with the construction of more gas stations. The concept of "La Ruta Maya" to promote tourism throughout the region has led to inter-government cooperation both in developing transportation and power.

The impact of developing tourism in the Yucatan is far-reaching and multi-faceted. Power plants, industry, and increased usage of vehicles bring pollution to formerly pristine areas. Too many cars not only increase air pollution, they crowd the streets with traffic. New, different jobs are created which require new skills and a different way of life. Electricity is brought to regions that have always done without. Some of these developments can bring about positive changes, but with the accompanying loss of a traditional way of life.

If so many people are without power in the Yucatan, how, you might wonder, do they do all those tasks that require energy? In this section I will discuss aspects of the daily life of a traditional Maya (Love, 1994) which require energy.

First of all, it never freezes in the Yucatan, therefore an energy supply for heating is unnecessary. However, it does get warm here and although not necessary, air conditioning is a comfortable thing. In this regard, wind power has long been utilized by the Maya. Their houses are constructed of lime platforms with a pole framework and palm-thatch roof. Slender poles are used as the walls. The walls typically have gaps which are left open to allow breezes to pass through the house, providing a natural air-conditioning system.

The next realm of daily life which requires the use of energy is food preparation. Where does one keep the food cold and how does one cook it? In answer to the first question, the more traditional Maya have an evaporative cooling platform in the yard, but most food is prepared fresh daily, alleviating the need for refrigeration. As far as cooking goes, a three-stone hearth is used to prepare the meals, with wood the traditional fuel. Nowadays, many families have gas-powered stoves.

Water is another important aspect of daily life. Above-ground water is scarce in the Yucatan. Cenotes (limestone sinkholes) provide a natural source of water on the peninsula. Rainwater is collected for some chores and to water the animals. Wells tap the underground water. Water can be drawn up by hand but just as common are multi-vane windmills which provide the power for pumping wells. How is this water heated for cleaning? Water is traditionally heated over the three-stone hearth, again using wood as the fuel. As it's developed, one of the uses for solar power will be for heating water.

What is the traditional source of lighting in Mayan households? Many Maya farmers have bees. This is an ancient industry and a bee-keeping almanac can be found in the Madrid Codex. Also, de Landa (1566) illustrates the importance of bee-keeping by stating that the intentional destruction of hives require compensation or "reparation through blood." De Landa (1566) describes the stingless bees cultivated by the Maya and the wax they produce. Redfield and Villa Rojas (1934) describe bee-keeping and candlemaking in more detail. There is little doubt that candles provided a major source of lighting in pre-Columbian times. Candles were and still are used in religious ceremonies. The little cubicles above the graves in the cemeteries are traditionally filled with candles and other objects, but the candles are starting to be replaced by electric lights shaped in the form of candles.

What about those other objects of modern life that require a power supply? A radio. The television. Stereos. Computers. Although numerous Mayan households are still without electricity, there are several other sources of energy. There are even solar-powered computers! The Mexican government and international organizations are doing their best to provide all people with access to electricity. It is up to each family and community to decide if they are going to use these new sources of energy and how much energy they will consume.


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Wilkerson, S. Jeffrey K. "The Usamacinta River: Troubles on a Wild Frontier" National Geographic, October 1985.

Note: All photographs are © 1996 by Linda Freeman and may only be used with permission.

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 This page was prepared by Linda Freeman for GeoScience 170 at CSU Chico.