This is a condensed version of an article that ran in the June edition of Rural Electric Magazine. To read the full story, visit http://remagazine.coop/sasabe-arizona-co-op-mexican-village.
By Michael W. Kahn
Like most other distribution co-ops, Trico Electric serves houses and schools, restaurants and offices. But it has one member that’s a little bit different than the others.
To say the least.
La Comisión Federal de Electricidad (CFE) is a member in good standing of Trico. You read that right: A company created and owned by the government of Mexico is a member of a U.S. electric co-op. The reason can be seen 70 miles southeast of downtown Tucson, where power lines run right over a border wall separating the two countries.
It’s a rare instance of an American electric co-op serving a foreign country, and it’s a story that goes back generations.
Blast from the past
The Sasabe Store is the last outpost in Arizona before the border with Mexico, and plays an important role in the cross-border electrification story.
The cross-border power story begins at the Sasabe Store. It’s a lone retail outpost amid a small western town lifted out of a 1950s-era TV show. You can pay in dollars or pesos, or even a personal check, whether you’re pumping gas from a pair of 1970s vintage gas pumps or buying anything from detergent, eyeliner, and Cheetos to Jim Beam, Twinkies, and sweatshirts with “Where The Heck is Sasabe, AZ?” printed on them.
“I’m fourth generation from here, but the store is three generations,” Trico Member Deborah Grider tells visitors. Her
great-grandfather built the store around 1920, and above the counter hangs a picture of Grider’s grandparents, Carlos and Luisa Escalante, the key figures in the story of power in the region.
They owned the town, Grier says, and not in the way Al Capone “owned” Chicago. They literally owned the town. To prove it, Grider pulls out a yellowed copy of Life magazine dated March 28, 1960, and opens it to an article headlined, “Any Money Down on Desert Town?” It’s about Carlos Escalante’s efforts to sell Sasabe for $500,000.
There were no takers, and when the Escalantes died, Grider’s mother, aunt, and uncle inherited the town. They later sold it to Domingo Pesqueira, who owns Sasabe to this day.
Pesqueira lives in Mexico, and Grider manages the town for him— including the store—while living on three acres her family kept nearby.
Carlos Escalante—whose father was governor of the state of Sonora during the Mexican Revolution—was a businessman with interests across the border.
“That’s how Trico got the right-of-way to go to Mexico, because my grandfather gave it to them for free,” Grider says. “My grandfather had generators, and he owned businesses in Mexico. What he wanted to do was eliminate the generators and have electricity. He talked to the people at Trico, and I guess they came to an agreement, and he gave them the right-of-way to go into Mexico.”
While Trico brought electricity to the Arizona side of the border in the 1950s, it wasn’t until 1963 that the line came over from Mexico.
Over the border, instead of the mountains
Within feet of clearing Mexican customs and immigration, the paved road turns to dirt. Unlike border towns like Tijuana, visitors don’t flock to Sasabe, Mexico. There’s a bar and a small store, but no gas station, so it’s easy to see why residents cross into Arizona for necessities.
But there is electricity. And while no one south of the border is a Trico member, co-op power keeps the lights on.
A few feet just inside the U.S., CFE picks up the service and brings it across the border. Across Mexico, CFE has more than 200 generating plants, with about 52,000 megawatts of capacity.
So why is it getting power from Trico? A simple matter of logistics.
“Here, where we have the electric supply, it is a bit far,” explains Roberto Cruz Larios, superintendent of CFE’s Caborca zone, which handles distribution to nearly 500 customers in the area.
“We are 50 kilometers [30 miles] from Sáric, the main town. The town is over the mountains.” Bringing power from Sáric to Sasabe “would have been very difficult,” he says. “It would take a long time to recover the costs.”
Trico, on the other hand, is right next door.
A perfect fit
For Vin Nitido, bringing power to CFE epitomizes what it means to be a cooperative.
“To my mind, it’s a classic cooperative relationship: It’s an underserved area with a customer that, by and large, is very appreciative of the service,” says Nitido, general manager and CEO of Trico. “We like being able to serve customers like that. To me it fits perfectly with our cooperative mission.”
And as unusual as it might seem to have an international member, Nitido says it’s really not.
“The thing that’s most striking to me is how similar it is. CFE is a lot like many of our other members. Their load is roughly the same amount as a grocery store. They’re about a half a megawatt,” says Nitido, adding that CFE is on a commercial rate.
A simpler time
Barbara Stockwell has been on the Trico board of directors nearly 40 years. Her district includes CFE.
She remembers a time when walking over to Mexico was a simple affair, with no one carrying a passport.
“We would take our kids over there to play baseball. They would come over to play baseball on this side of the line,” she recalls.
And the cooperative principle of commitment to community carried an international flair.
“I knew the teachers over there, and Trico donated books, recycled computers. They had to get a new transformer, which I helped them get money to buy, so they could run the computers. And they still have that transformer.”
Stockwell is proud that Trico is bringing power to her southern neighbors.
“They would have nothing. It’s too far to Altar. It’s too far to Caborca,” Stockwell says.