A group of scientists wants to create a zone between Mexico and the U.S. that produces clean energy and water for both.
The United States remains bitterly divided on whether a wall along its roughly 3,200-kilometer southern border would control migration and make the nation safer. Now a group of scientists wants to move past the politically toxic debate over President Donald Trump’s proposal and “build the wall” anyway—one that harnesses clean energy, and produces power and water for the U.S. and Mexico.
A consortium of 28 university-affiliated scientists, from Stanford and Purdue to Cornell and Texas A&M, is asking what would happen if the countries collaborated in creating a light industrial zone that buffers the border instead. They envision a win-win that’s unlike any other international border in the world.
The “Future Energy, Water, Industry and Education Park (FEWIEP): A Secure and Permanent US-Mexico Border Solution” project is seeking USD$1.1 billion in funding for this sustainability vision. It’s led by Luciano Castillo, the Kenninger Professor of Renewable Energy and Power Systems at Purdue University.
“Just like the transcontinental railroad transformed the United States in the 19th century, or the interstate highway system transformed the 20th century, this would be a national infrastructure project for the 21st century,” says Castillo.
There’s already existing research to suggest that renewable energy delivery, food systems, and water resources in the face of dwindling supply could be transformed. For example, researchers at the University of New Hampshire and Imperial College of London found that a ribbon of solar panels configured along the border would produce 15.8 GWh per day. That delivers as much energy as the hydroelectric production along the border of the U.S. and Canada, which includes Niagara Falls.
They’d also be placed in a region that includes Mexico’s Chihuahua state, which borders on the U.S. state of New Mexico and has one of the planet’s highest solar irradiation potentials in the world. With an estimated eight million solar panels needed, the idea promises to boost alternative renewable jobs.
Other solutions in the 100 kilometer-wide border zone would include wind parks harnessed to deliver an estimated 600 MW of power to operate reverse osmosis plants; they could provide enough water for all of the manufacturing, mining, livestock, and other demands in the entire state of Texas. Yet the vision includes Mexico as an equal partner, and anticipates need that will prevent water scarcity migration. Cities like Ciudad Juarez, Tijuana, San Diego, Tucson and El Paso already exist inside the border zone.
“It also has the potential to make the desert bloom—an almost 2,000 miles long oasis that would become host to enormous agricultural production, relieving foreseen food shortages, creating wealth for Mexico (and) US and reducing CO2 from the atmosphere,” says the FEWIEP white paper.
That vision stands in sharp contrast to the border wall as a monument to xenophobia and a fortress mentality, one that separates rather than unites. It reimagines an otherwise “passive barrier that physically stifles innovation and collaboration between the U.S. and Mexico,” says Kenneth Christensen, a consortium member from the University of Notre Dame.
“Environmental impact respects no borders,” adds colleague Carlos Coimbra of the University of California at San Diego, head of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and its affiliated Center for Energy Research. “The American Southwest is still a development frontier, and we now know, better than ever, how to build sustainable communities.”