US-Mexico energy cooperation is vital to enable nearshoring

Claudia Sheinbaum’s historic election matters for Mexico’s relationship with the United States, particularly in trade and energy. While Sheinbaum has pledged continuity with the top-line agenda of outgoing president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), subtle differences are emerging, opening new areas for cooperation. To make the most of those opportunities, the United States and Mexico must work together to enhance Mexico’s grid for a new industrial era.


Sign up for PowerPlay, the Atlantic Council’s bimonthly newsletter keeping you up to date on all facets of the energy transition.

Mexico’s nearshoring opportunity

Mexico features prominently in US ambitions to “nearshore,” whereby companies move their production facilities closer to home and away from far-flung industrial hubs—mainly China. This shift is influenced by the United States’ drive to build more resilient supply chains in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and heightened geopolitical competition with China.

Cross-border economic ties under the United States-Mexico-Canada (USMCA) free trade zone are growing. The United States and Mexico are now each other’s largest trading partner. This can be attributed to many factors, including a deteriorating trade relationship between the United States and China, which reinforces the argument for nearshoring.

Mexico presents a supply chain opportunity for the United States. But from the Mexican perspective, support for nearshoring is relatively subdued. The “national project” of AMLO and Sheinbaum’s Morena party emphasizes combatting inequality including by developing the country’s south and strengthening state-owned companies. By contrast, the bulk of nearshoring investments would be made by private companies and go toward Mexico’s industrialized north, along the US border. Perhaps as a result, nearshoring has not progressed as rapidly as many predicted. US investors will need to align with Sheinbaum’s agenda to build a Mexican energy system capable of turning nearshoring into a reality.

Is nearshoring even happening?

A closer look at investment data paints a mixed picture of nearshoring. On one hand, foreign direct investment (FDI) in Mexico—the only measure of whether investment in the country is rising—reached a record $20.3 billion in the first quarter (Q1) of 2024, a 9 percent increase over Q1 2023. Fifty-two percent of total FDI in Mexico originated from the United States. On the other hand, only 3 percent of this increase can be attributed to new investments, contradicting the narrative that large-scale nearshoring is occurring. Furthermore, manufacturing as a share of Mexico’s economy grew to only 21 percent in the first half of 2023, from a pre-pandemic level of 20 percent. Tesla, which in March 2023 announced one of the largest nearshoring projects, has yet to break ground on its facility in Nuevo León. Like other investors, Tesla has encountered rising costs and logistical challenges.

Grid constrains are stifling nearshoring

Nearshoring is being limited by structural issues faced by Mexico’s electricity sector. Mexico’s grid has struggled to keep up with rising demand. The country suffers an “energy deficit,” facing difficulty connecting new manufacturing plants to the grid and—by extension—to renewable energy sources. The latter is a potential sticking point for electric vehicle producers looking to relocate to Mexico such as Tesla, GM, and Ford. The Mexican Association of Private Industrial Parks notes that this issue has postponed some projects and has throttled nearshoring in the years since the pandemic.

Is Mexico’s electricity sector a constraint?

The fragility of Mexico’s grid presents another major nearshoring obstacle. This was made clear in early May 2024 when the electricity demand on the grid nearly exceeded the total available generating capacity, leading the national electric system operator, CENACE, to declare a state of emergency. It has been reported that much of this demand can be attributed to the rising use of air conditioning and electric cooling during a record-breaking, weeks-long heatwave. As Mexico gets hotter courtesy of climate change, demand for cooling technologies—particularly for industrial processes—is set to rise.

Mexico’s electricity sector needs to shape up to meet increased demand from nearshoring.

More competition is needed—US investors can help

Mexico’s electricity sector offers a promising path for the United States to align its nearshoring objectives with Sheinbaum’s agenda. But to do so, it must benefit state-owned companies and free up state funds for social programs aimed at reducing inequality.

Increased private sector participation in the electricity sector is a necessity for achieving greater capacity and connectivity to unlock nearshoring. One analysis from the National Autonomous University of Mexico argues that increasing private sector participation in the electricity sector would not displace the state-owned electricity company CFE, which controls 40 percent of Mexico’s electric generation capacity, produces 70 percent of its power with private partners, and controls the full transmission and distribution network of the national grid.

In fact, CFE could benefit from increased industrial demand driven by nearshoring. Increasing private sector involvement in power generation can even help CFE by freeing it to investment in other areas, such as upgrading its transmission and distribution network and strengthening its balance sheet in the long term.

New president, new opportunities

AMLO has tried to strengthen CFE by passing a measure in 2021 to discriminate against private sector electricity generation and negate the 2013 Electricity Industry Law, which was designed to promote competition in the sector. Although the measure has since been overturned by the Supreme Court, the administration has effectively halted new public auctions for independent power contracts, preventing growth in private sector investment. Despite this, the private sector drove the increase in solar and wind power from 2014-2020.

Reversing course on private investment will be critical to restoring and expanding the capacity of the electric system and lowering costs. In 2019, independent power producers generated electricity 35 percent cheaper than CFE.

Sheinbaum’s election may present an opportunity for greater private sector collaboration with the United States. Facilitating investment can both strengthen Mexico’s grid and bolster the Mexican state, outcomes that are in line with Morena’s socioeconomic justice goals. While Sheinbaum will likely continue to favor state-owned companies, the Wall Street Journal reports that she also aims to “attract billions of dollars in private investment for solar and wind farms, with the government keeping control and a majority share in the electricity market,” citing a close advisor to Sheinbaum.

How the US-Mexico partnership can boost nearshoring and the electricity sector

The United States should seize the opportunity to work with the incoming Sheinbaum administration to strengthen the Mexican energy sector, thereby enabling supply chain security gains through nearshoring. The relationship should uphold the mutually beneficial tenets of the USMCA, including its level playing field for private sector investment.

In addition, the United States should redouble its technical and regulatory cooperation efforts with Mexican electricity regulators as has been conducted through the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). The aim of this partnership should be to work toward goals which benefit the Mexican administration’s agenda while strengthening economic ties and boosting Mexico’s manufacturing potential.

US-Mexico cooperation on electricity sector regulation can facilitate private sector investment in generation that could decrease the burden on CFE as the sole entity responsible for expanding the grid. Ceding greater financing responsibility to the private sector—with CENACE retaining control of the national electric system—could enable CFE to expand its business alongside the private sector and permit the Mexican state to focus on investments that promote increased prosperity for all its citizens.

With higher private sector participation conducted in a manner that respects the central role state-owned companies play in Mexican society, the electricity sector in Mexico can be transformed into an enabler of the nearshoring trend.

William Tobin is an assistant director with the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center.




The Global Energy Center develops and promotes pragmatic and nonpartisan policy solutions designed to advance global energy security, enhance economic opportunity, and accelerate pathways to net-zero emissions.

Image: "Energy Electricity Power Plant," (ewirz, Pixbay, Pixabay Content License)