The nearly 2,000-mile border that separates the U.S. and Mexico is not an easily navigable environment. It meanders across deserts and canyons, riverbeds and wetlands. It’s dotted unevenly with fences, walls, and checkpoints built to control immigration between the countries.
President Donald Trump, a year and a half ago, proposed putting solar panels here, on the border wall that had been a rallying cry of his campaign. “Look, there’s no better place for solar than the Mexico border—the southern border,” he said at the time.
It’s not infeasible, technically. The notion of a solar-paneled border wall might have seemed underdeveloped, but a group of scientists based out of Purdue University and other large research institutions are now proposing a plan that, they say, would unite the Republican Party’s call for more border security with the Democratic Party’s calls for a Green New Deal.
Instead of a concrete barrier, these engineers and scientists envision a massive energy infrastructure project at the United States border, in one of the sunniest regions of the southern U.S. With solar panels, wind turbines, water desalination facilities, and pipelines for natural gas, this extensive, snaking complex would theoretically produce clean energy for both countries, spurring economic growth and development in the region.
The infrastructure and accompanying facilities would be placed in between and around existing sections of border fences and walls. Their paper suggests placing wind turbines along high-potential wind-energy sites on the Texas Gulf Coast and in Baja, California. That energy could then be used to desalinate water in the region, which frequently faces droughts and shortages. Solar panels would dot the border in West Texas and New Mexico—an area with the best solar-energy potential in the United States, but little installed capacity.
Given its size and scale, the infrastructure in this plan effectively is the barrier between the two countries. And the paper proposes that it all be accompanied by high-level security, such as drones and sensors, warning of any suspicious activity or threat to the sensitive energy and electric infrastructure—whether that’s humans attempting to cross through it, or the wildlife that inhabits both sides of the border.
Luciano Castillo, a professor at Purdue and the lead author of the paper, doesn’t see the border energy park as a way to stop immigration, which would require a much more holistic set of policies. It could, however, provide jobs and opportunities to people fleeing their home countries. “This isn’t us versus them—we want people to be able to come and work [on this] innovation,” he says. On paper, the idea might seem equal parts fantastical and unfeasible; Castillo sees the proposal as inherently optimistic. To an engineer, it looks like a chance to change the more and more polarized rhetoric around the border, and spur cooperative economic development on both sides.
The proposal, co-written with more than two dozen engineers from large research universities including Texas Tech, Arizona State, and Stanford University, is mostly focused on the technical and economic challenges at hand. It doesn’t address the complexities that drive migration in the region, or the fate of the people who will still ultimately be stopped at a border wall—even if that wall functions as a hub of economic activity. “We’re not arguing that this is going to make everything nice for everyone,” he says.
But it’s not the first time that people have reimagined what the border can or should look like, Geraldo Cadava, a history professor at Northwestern University who focuses on the borderlands, tells me.
In 2006, The New York Times asked 13 architects to reconsider what a border fence could look like, as Congress was debating adding thousands of miles of border fence to the southern border. Some architects declined to participate, because of the politicized nature of the question, but those who were up to the challenge came up with ideas that at least attempted to defy the stark reality of a barrier between nations. Most of the submissions weren’t traditional fences or barriers: one was entirely conceptual, created by heaps of crushed rock that, once heated from below, would cause a mirage-like divider of hot air. Another architect proposed “a strolling, landscaped arcade of lighted glass columns,” marking the border and encouraging social gatherings in the space.
And one of the proposals was described as a “Bush meets Gore hybrid” that tied together the functionality of a border wall with the utility of solar panels—much like the new white paper.
“There’s a long history of alternative imaginations of what the borderlands could become,” Cadava says. “I think this draws our attention to how unproductive our contemporary conversations are.”
When Big Bend National Park was established in the southwestern corner of Texas in the 1940s, then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt envisioned it as an international park that spanned both sides of the Rio Grande. Though the river is, politically, the dividing line between the two nations, ecologically it travels through deserts, mountains, and forests that existed long before any border did.
The inspiration for a binational park came from a similar project along the United States’ northern border: In 1932, Canada and the U.S. established the Waterton Glacier International Peace Park, straddling Alberta, Canada, and Montana. The park is recognized, even today, as a symbol of the goodwill that exists between the U.S. and Canada.
And in Derby Line, Vermont, flowerpots mark the border between the two countries. “That is a really, really different image than a steel fence protruding from the earth, separating people,” says Mary E. Mendoza, a historian at Penn State University.
But if Roosevelt saw the environment of the southern borderland as a natural wonder, its more hostile character has also been used as a strategic tool of border security. In 1994, under the presidency of Bill Clinton, the government adopted a border-patrol strategy known as “prevention through deterrence.” By strategically increasing security and patrolling in large, urban centers such as El Paso and San Diego, the government hoped that immigrants seeking to cross illegally would be driven to more dangerous, and life-threatening, points of entry.
A few years later, a Government Accountability Office report listed “deaths of aliens attempting entry” as one of the indicators of the strategy’s effectiveness. The predicted outcome if the strategy was successful was that “deaths may increase (as enforcement in urban areas forces aliens to attempt mountain or desert crossings).”
By contrast, there is a certain level of optimism in the proposal for an infrastructure plan at the border. If the plan were to come to fruition, it could transform perceptions of the borderlands as an empty, desolate, or dangerous place to one that’s a source of economic growth and productivity.
But even the Sonoran Desert, which stretches from California to Arizona, is a sensitive and complicated environment that would be disturbed by the level of development that Castillo’s plan would require. And a major hurdle to currentborder-construction projects—even small-scale fences or barriers—is the fact that landowners in the borderlands are unwilling to allow the federal government to seize their property for construction.
“If you were to pick the area where there are the fewest people and ecosystems that wouldn’t be completely destroyed, then perhaps part of the border could be used for energy trading and investment for both nations,” Mendoza says. “But the real problem is that [the paper] proposes to do this along the entire length of the border.”
The borderlands have never been empty: they are dotted with large urban areas such as El Paso, Nogales, and Tijuana, but also small, unincorporated communities known as colonias, which often lack access to clean running water, adequate health care, and housing. In theory, bringing water resources, jobs, and development to these communities would be a positive effect of the proposal. But no one asked these residents what they need, and how they’d like it delivered.
“Before even considering what these communities need, the bigger question is whether there will be a process for consulting with people who would benefit from or could be impacted by these ideas and projects,” Pedro Rios, the director of the American Friends Service Committee’s U.S./Mexico Border Program, says. “That’s a problem we’ve seen coming from both Washington and Mexico City, where decisions are made about policies that don’t reflect the needs of border communities.” For example, he points out, who would operate the drones and sensors the plan proposes to bring in with the infrastructure? Would it bring more private security firms into a region that’s already heavily militarized?
Looking to solve the so-called border crisis with technical and economic solutions tends to elide the very human aspects of the borderlands. A variety of factors, from climate change to political violence, has created the northward migration from Central America that this proposal seeks to address. Those factors show no signs of changing anytime soon. And an energy corridor won’t change the fact that many of the communities that exist along the U.S.-Mexico border have been intertwined for generations. The border is more fluid than most politicians—and engineers—allow. A wall, even with the added value of a green infrastructure project, would still serve as a stark divider.