What if the US-Mexico border wall was an energy corridor that could pay for itself?

What if the US-Mexico border wall was an energy corridor that could pay for itself?

Instead of a wall, build a first-of-its-kind energy park that spans the 1,954 miles of the border between the United States and Mexico to bring energy, water, jobs and border security to the region.

That's the audacious plan put forward by a consortium of 28 prestigious engineers and scientists from across the nation who propose that the two nations work together on an enormous infrastructure project: a complex train of solar energy panels, wind turbines, natural gas pipelines, desalination facilities that together would create an industrial park along the border unlike anything found anywhere else in the world.

The facilities would provide the desired border security, the researchers say, because utility facilities and infrastructure must be well-protected. The connected energy parks would also be an economic driver, both in the construction of the facilities themselves and in the businesses that would be attracted to the region by cheap electricity and plentiful water resources. Comments from co-authors of the proposal to build an energy-water-security corridor are available here.

Luciano Castillo, Purdue University's Kenninger Professor of Renewable Energy and Power Systems, and lead of the consortium, says if enacted, the mega infrastructure project would have a historic positive effect for both nations.

"Just like the transcontinental railroad transformed the United States in the 19th century, or the Interstate system transformed the 20th century, this would be a national infrastructure project for the 21st century," Castillo says. "It would do for the Southwest what the Tennessee Valley Authority has done for the Southeast over the last several decades."

Ronald Adrian, Regent’s Professor at Arizona State University and a member of the prestigious National Academy of Engineering, says this proposal, although a huge undertaking, is worth serious study.

“At first blush the idea seems too big, too aggressive, but consider the Roman aqueducts or the transcontinental railroads — enormous undertakings that gave enormous benefits. The cost of providing basic, essential infrastructure to the border lands is tiny compared to the opportunities it creates,” he says. “I view this project as a means of creating wealth by turning unused land of little value along the border into valuable land that has power, water access and ultimately agriculture, industry, jobs, workers and communities. With only a wall, you still have unused land of little value.”

Carlos Castillo-Chavez, Regent's Professor at Arizona State University, says a cooperative effort between the United States and Mexico to address the issues of the border region would reinforce the cultural ties that have existed for hundreds of years.

"The USA-Mexico border is home to families with common bonds, large Spanglish-proficient communities, talented creative large pools of young people, intersecting cultural ties and more. These communities have faced day and night similar ecological, health, education, energy, water and security challenges," Castillo-Chavez says. "They know that solutions must address these challenges across both nations. There are no effective single-territory solutions."

The plan was first reported by Scientific American; the full proposal is available online.

Contributing to border security

The first question often raised about the proposal is about border security and, Castillo says, the energy parks would provide ample security.

"All utility plants, pipelines and other energy production facilities have security — as any infrastructure will have under any conditions,” he says. “In addition to physical security features, such as multiple levels of fencing, these pipelines and facilities would also have electronic sensors and drone surveillance. This would allow areas for wildlife to continue to migrate while alerting officials to anyone crossing the border illegally."

Adrian agrees: “The measures being undertaken to control the U.S.-Mexican border with a barrier ( the 'wall') are entirely compatible with a long bank of solar panels backed by a super pipe line — same land, similar construction issues, and the fact that each of these systems is a barrier to some degree.”

The idea of combining the border security wall or fence with solar energy panels isn't original — in fact, President Trump himself has floated the idea as one of many possibilities.

"This is a different kind of initiative that will solve many existing challenges while bringing people together," Castillo says. "It will bring energy, water and education to create more opportunities for the USA and Mexico on both sides."

Providing water resources

The southwestern United States is dry and prone to drought — two of the world's worst droughts in in the past 30 years have taken place there. Droughts, of course, limit or damage economic development and agriculture wherever they occur, and the chances of droughts in this region are expected to increase significantly in coming decades due to climate change.

California, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona are currently in a drought categorized as severe to exceptional and are using up groundwater resources, according to research conducted at the University of Saskatchewan.

"Water conservation efforts are laudable, but they won't be enough to bring this area out of its crisis," Castillo says. "And they fall far short of a blueprint for growth and prosperity."

The proposal offers a plan to increase water resources in the region in two ways.

First, in the United States, nearly half of the water is used by fossil fuel and nuclear power plants used for cooling, and increasing the amount of wind and solar production of electricity would allow billions of gallons of water available for other resources.

Second, the proposed plan includes wind-powered desalination plants at each coast, which would then pump fresh water into the interior region.

"Now, once you have water, you can have agriculture and manufacturing at levels this region has not seen before," Castillo says. "Without this, over the next few decades the American Southwest is going to begin running out of water, and then you're going to see another border crisis — but this one will be at the Canadian border where people will be rushing across to find water."

Wealth of energy resources

Although the region has a scarcity of water, it's quite the opposite for energy-producing resources.

Oil and natural gas: Some of the largest deposits of oil and shale gas are located in Texas, New Mexico and Southern California. In fact, a U.S. Geological Survey assessment of untapped resources in southwest New Mexico and west Texas found just these resources alone represent an increase of 100 percent in oil reserves and a 65 percent in natural gas reserves.

Wind energy: Research conducted at the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that the strong winds at the Texas Gulf Coast and the Baja California regions are ideal for wind farms.

The proposal suggests that these wind farms be used to power desalination plants, and previous work done at Purdue University found this this could provide 2.3 million acre-feet of water per year, an amount equivalent, the proposal says, to satisfy the water needs for all of the manufacturing, mining and livestock needs of the state of Texas.

Solar energy: The sun is so intense in the border region that the Mexican state of Chihuahua has one of the highest solar radiation potentials in the world. Researchers at the University of New Hampshire and the Imperial College of London found that a line five solar panels wide along the border would produce as much energy as the hydroelectric power production along the border of the U.S. and Canada (which, of course, includes Niagara Falls).

The proposal notes that the energy corridor would enable load-shifting, in which electricity generated could be sent to the eastern half of the United States when demand is high and then to the western United States later in the day when the highest demand shifts to that region.

Private investment, environmental impact studies needed

The authors of the proposal note two final components would be needed to bring this plan to fruition: private funding and an educated work force, says Jay Gore, Purdue's Vincent P. Reilly Professor in Mechanical Engineering and director of the Energy Center in Purdue's Discovery Park.

"A project of this magnitude must be a private-public venture driven by free-market forces. It would require assuring border security first, industrial-scale infrastructure second, and an educated workforce, third. The private capital will flow to secure, infrastructure-ready and educated areas with great priority," Gore says. "Over the years, I have learned from some of the most distinguished experts, including Nobel laureates, that for an entrepreneurial economic boom to happen it requires the availability of secure land, energy, water and an educated workforce."

The proposal plans for at least three "energy security institute" campuses to be developed along the border where people from both nations can come to learn the skills needed to work in the wind energy, solar energy and natural gas industries.

"Universities within the four states, California, Texas, Arizona and New Mexico, should be convinced to establish partnerships with their Mexican counterparts across the border to establish curricula for workforce development at all levels to attract private investment by corporations and venture firms from around the world," Gore says.

Castillo says the vision of the energy and water park would be to attract many businesses on both sides of the border in a broad and lucrative economic zone.

"Instead of being a region of conflict, the border area could become the largest industrial park of its kind in the world," he says.

Carlos F. Coimbra, head, Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (and affiliated Center for Energy Research) at the University of California, San Diego, says the project will need to consider all of its effects, including the environment.

"Environmental impact respects no borders, so it is important for the quality of life on both sides that there is substantial cooperation on all fronts, including border security, economic development, sustainable growth, educational partnerships, etc.," he says. "The American Southwest is still a development frontier, and we now know, better than ever, how to build sustainable communities that are well adapted to the semi-arid environment of the border that is rich in specific fauna and flora, but is also very sensitive to human impact."

This work work aligns with Purdue's Giant Leaps celebration, celebrating the global advancements in sustainability of life as part of Purdue’s 150th anniversary. Sustainability is one of the four themes of the yearlong celebration’s Ideas Festival, designed to showcase Purdue as an intellectual center solving real-world issues.

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