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Could an Energy Park Secure the U.S.-Mexico Border?

Constructing a nearly 2,000-mile energy park along the border could provide security, energy and water for both countries. And a consortium of engineers and scientists think it's a viable alternative to Trump's wall.

Fence. Wall. Barrier. “Whatever you want to call it.” 

President Donald Trump’s fight for border security began on the campaign trail in 2015 — and the fight continues, despite it leading to the longest U.S. government shutdown in history.

There are, of course, many border wall supporters nationwide, and even more border wall opponents, according to the Pew Research Center. But politics aside, a consortium of 28 engineers and scientists nationwide have proposed a potentially productive alternative: building an energy park that spans the 1,954 mile-long border between Mexico and the U.S. 

This consortium suggests that the U.S. and Mexican governments collaborate to create an industrial park along the border that would consist of a train of solar energy panels, wind turbines, natural gas pipelines and desalination facilities — and bring energy, water, jobs and border security to the region.

Consortium Lead Luciano Castillo, who also is Purdue University's Kenninger professor of renewable energy and power systems, says that this project, if enacted, would have a historic positive effect on both countries.

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

Energy Park Security Equals Border Security

By its very nature, this energy park would be secure — which means the border itself also would be secure. 

“You're going to have large pipes of water and electricity running through, so you have to protect the infrastructure, not just from the weather but also from animals and vandalism,” Castillo told Government Technology. “And because we have to protect that, that by itself is going to be a buffer for trespassing.”

The energy park would include such physical security features as multiple levels of fencing, as well as electronic sensors and drone surveillance — wildlife could still migrate, but officials would be alerted should anyone attempt to cross the border illegally.

Arizona State University Regent’s Professor Ronald Adrian, who also is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, agrees.

“The measures being undertaken to control the U.S.-Mexican border with a barrier are entirely compatible with a long bank of solar panels backed by a super pipeline,” he said in the news release, “same land, similar construction issues, and the fact that each of these systems is a barrier to some degree.” 

Energizing a Region

Plus, this initiative will solve many existing challenges while simultaneously energizing and building up the region. 

Castillo likened the project to the transcontinental railroad transforming the United States in the 19th century or the interstate system transforming the 20th century, calling it a national infrastructure project for the 21st century.

“Look at Canada — you have hydro power, hydroelectric; [they took] advantage of Niagara Falls and created one of the biggest developments, like we did in the early [years] when we were developing energy production with Edison and Tesla,” Castillo said. “I think this country needs something big to bring hope, and I think this project could be that something big.”

This project, he added, would include institutes located at the border where people could learn and conduct research, and potentially develop new innovations.

“There's a great potential to create training and learning,” he said. “And if that happens, people on both sides would be training while they’re working and/or testing technology that they could develop there. The way we see it is as the greatest technological park ever built, because you would have roughly 2,000 miles of manufacturing companies, startups that could set up there,” and educational institutions.

Plus, the Southwestern United States is dry and prone to drought. But an energy park along the border that includes wind-powered desalination plants at each coast would pump fresh water to the interior region.

In addition, Castillo said, nearly half of our nation’s water is used for cooling in fossil fuel and nuclear power plants, so increasing wind and solar electricity production means billions of gallons of water would be available for other resources, such as agriculture and manufacturing. 

“We could grow new businesses in the border region,” he told GovTech. “We could also develop agriculture because now we have fresh water; we could do a lot of things. And the whole idea is that we're not seeing this as us versus them; we see it as a way to work together. Let’s employ people on both sides, because Mexico is facing the same problem of lack of water and lack of electricity. This is a different way of creating value and opportunity.”

Energy Park Design, Implementation and Buy-in

In the consortium’s white paper, Castillo and his colleagues propose that a consortium consisting of U.S. and Mexican universities — along with industries and laboratories in the U.S., Mexico and Latin America — provide technical expertise and new innovations for the energy park’s development. And that a team of academic institutions help the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) build the park. 

“We need to better learn how to use our talent. And by talent, I mean the greatest minds we have, not only in academia, but you have a lot of young students — very brilliant students, very creative — that are taking classes, they're facing some of those problems,” Castillo said. “Why not engage academia at all levels and in the industry? And we help design this park. We could work with the federal government, we would work with the local government, industries and obviously the private sector on both sides.”

More specifically, the proposal calls for developing at least three "energy security institute" campuses along the border — where people from both Mexico and the U.S. can learn skills necessary for working in the wind energy, solar energy and natural gas industries.

Purdue Vincent P. Reilly Professor in Mechanical Engineering Jay Gore, who also is director of the Energy Center in Purdue's Discovery Park, said universities within 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.”

In addition, Castillo said the idea is that the DHS would provide funding to the consortium to help it design and build the park and its components. And Mexico also would help with funding, he added, “because it is in the best interest of both parties to solve the problem of water.” 

While the project is still in the idea phase, Castillo said the proposal has been sent to four congressmen, and the consortium is still awaiting response. 

“We're hoping that the politicians on Capitol Hill really listen carefully or study this carefully,” he said. “This has nothing to do with Democrats or Republicans; it has to do with providing the country a solution to something better than what we're discussing right now.”