Building solar, wind, natural gas and water infrastructure along the US-Mexico border would create economic opportunity rather than antagonism
Here's an idea: Instead of a never-ending inert wall along the US-Mexico border, put up the limit with 2,000 miles of natural gas, solar, and wind power plants. Use some of the energy to desalinate water from the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean and pipe it to thirsty cities, businesses and new farms throughout the border area. Hire hundreds of thousands of people from both countries to build and run everything. Businesses would make money and provide security to safeguard their assets. A controversial and expensive no-man's-land would be transformed into a corridor of opportunity.
Crazy? Maybe or maybe not. History is full of ideas that initially sounded outlandish but ended up changing society.
The idea is more than an impossible dream. A consortium of 27 engineers and scientists from a dozen US universities has developed a plan. Last week they handed it over to three representatives from the United States and a senator. “Let's put the best scientists and engineers together to create a new way to deal with migration, traffic and access to water. These are regions of severe drought, "says Luciano Castillo, a professor of energy and power at Purdue University who leads the group. "Water supply is a big future problem for all the states along the border in both countries."
The solar and wind farms, plus 2,000 miles of natural gas and water pipes, would feed and supply water for farms and industry along the entire US-Mexico border, transforming it into an area of opportunity for both countries. . Drones would help monitor everything.
The Future Energy, Water, Industry and Education Park (FEWIEP) plan, simulated in simple graphics by its creators, would include institutes for innovation and worker education. Credit: US EPA (Base Map, Border Area); Luciano Castillo, Jose Montoya, Jay Gore (icons, keys)
If you're getting a mental picture but still shaking your head skeptically, as you initially were, consider the broader situation that Castillo and his colleagues have described in a short paper sent to Scientific American. The border region receives unlimited solar energy, and has significant natural gas and wind energy resources. It is also suffering from extreme drought and the water shortage is expected to worsen. Agriculture is extremely difficult. And jobs are often scarce, in part due to a lack of water and energy. If an energy and water corridor were built, the facility owners would protect their properties. Companies, states and federal agencies would monitor the transmission, gas and water lines, as they are doing in many other places. And the plants could be integrated with security walls or fences.
With water and energy, agriculture and manufacturing could flourish. That means jobs on both sides of the border. Many people from Mexico and further south are trying to enter the United States precisely because there is no opportunity for them at home. The "future park of energy, water, industry and education", as the white paper calls it, "will create massive opportunities for employment and prosperity." Imagine the number of jobs created, Castillo says, just for the part of the plan that includes the installation of eight million solar panels.
The border industrial park, as I'll call it, could also work politically. "Democrats want a Green New Deal. Republicans want border security, ”Castillo explains. "Both parties could win. It could also be a win-win for the US and Mexico. This idea could spark a whole new conversation about the border. And we need that ”.
Of course there are all kinds of tough questions. Security is probably the toughest. Would construction workers and operational personnel be at risk from smugglers and traffickers? Could private security companies and employees really face potential serious threats or say no to bribes? Won't the walls and fences that link power plants seriously block wildlife migration? On Tuesday, Industrial Energy Consumers of America sent a letter to the Senate asking it to tighten the pipeline's safety requirements because "a successful attack could shut down tens of thousands of manufacturing facilities."
Castillo turns these negatives into positives - the philosophy behind the entire plan, actually. Migrants could be workers. There are models of cooperation between governments: the US and Canada have built and continue to protect important national infrastructures along their borders. For example, hydroelectric plants produce power on both sides of Niagara Falls. The US and Mexico would be co-investors in the border industrial park and would work together to protect it.
Desalination of seawater, a key part of the park, is expensive and can also foul the ocean. A huge amount of salt water would have to be cooled to fill a 2,000-mile pipeline. The consortium says the power could come from wind and solar power, strong at the ends of the park in the Gulf and Pacific. A 600 megawatt power plant (equivalent to a sizable coal plant or a modest nuclear plant) in the Gulf could generate enough desalination to provide 2.3 million acre-feet of fresh water per year, which Castillo says is enough to meet the future needs of the Texas-Mexico border.
Solar farms would power water pumps for the pipeline. "We would need innovation to really reduce energy demand and the cost of desalination," he acknowledges. "And we would have to find creative solutions to use the salty brine," which is a by-product. Recent studies show that if the brine is simply thrown into the sea, it can ruin the coastal waters there. However, on Tuesday the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced a new process to convert that brine into useful chemicals.
"We are going to have some challenges," Castillo says. "We will have a lot to deal with."
One of the first steps would be to start a series of institutes along the corridor to drive innovation and create education for the workforce. They would likely be run as partnerships between academia, industry, and government. The proposal that the consortium sent to the four legislators asks for $ 1.1 billion to implement these and other actions.
Other types of experts would have to get involved. "We will need economists," Castillo says. “We will need people with experience in manufacturing. We will need policy experts who know how energy and water can be traded. " Fortunately, he adds, some of the challenges have been addressed in other parts of the country and the world. The United States and Canada, for example, have exchanged vast amounts of power across their border for decades.
Building infrastructure is a high priority in the current Congress, despite its endless bickering, so perhaps a border industrial park can rally lawmakers. They just have to think differently about how to solve the border problem, Castillo says. Don't think of it as a barrier. Think of it as an energy corridor, a water corridor. It can create peace. "
By Mark Fischetti, Senior Editor, Scientific American