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Leon Kaye headshot

Can the Sun Pay for Trump’s Border Wall?

By Leon Kaye

According to the business and political news site Axios, President Trump “floated” the idea that the wall he envisions along the U.S. border with Mexico could be festooned with solar panels, which would pay for itself with the electricity that it would generate.

While the Trump’s suggestion was just that, an idea for his “beautiful” wall, reactions, naturally, were all over the map. Although The Atlantic noted Trump’s disdain for the environmental movement, Robinson Meyer suggested that the notion could be viable and is “more than a troll.” Some GOP leaders were reportedly open to the idea. “I think it’s innovative,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy told the Wall Street Journal. “To authorize it and to appropriate it wouldn’t cost as much.”

Trump’s preferred medium, Twitter, was quick to chime in with a wide range of responses:


Let’s step back a second and forget about the politics of why the president wants to support coal jobs in Appalachia but install solar along the border. Clearly, Mexico is not going to pay for this wall. The country’s former president, Vicente Fox, screams daily on Twitter that our neighbor to the south will never, ever pay for the “f---ing wall.” Congress is also dragging its feet on funding any wall. So far it has appropriated enough funds for only 74 miles along the 1,200-mile Texas-Mexico border. At face value, a wall that would generate clean power and pay for itself makes sense. And despite the White House’s exit from the Paris Agreement, there are nuggets of sustainability in Trump’s policies if one looks hard enough – his plan to privatize the U.S. aviation system, for example, could actually reduce emissions. Forget all the vitriol and the behavior of the president and his adversaries – in fairness, some of Trump’s policies appeal to both the left and right. The solar wall is one example.

But as with many of Trump’s policies, the devil is in those pesky details.

Trump supposedly envisions a 50-foot high wall covered with solar panels, and theoretically this structure could bond the U.S. and Mexico as it generates emissions-free electricity. But while not everyone agrees with the conventional wisdom on panel placement, in general, installations north of the Equator have panels facing south. With the exception of a stretch along Texas from Big Bend National Park in Brewster County, the vast majority of the panels would face Mexico. This stubborn question therefore has to be answered: who maintains, cleans and repairs the panels? Drones could be the answer, but as some opponents of the wall would retort, drones could serve as an effective tool for border security along the remote sections of the wall – and in any event, they are costly.

In addition, who would benefit from this energy? True, there are large and rapidly growing population centers along the wall, with San Diego-Tijuana, Tucson, El Paso-Juarez and Brownsville-Matamoros the obvious candidates to receive this cheap, limitless source of power. But those areas are not where new sections of this wall would be built.

The cost of transmitting this power to the population centers that could harness this power must be considered in enumerating the project’s total price tag. Improved battery storage would certainly help the case for building a solar wall. But considering the sensitive politics surrounding the wall, do not expect Elon Musk, who recently cut ties with the Trump Administration over the Paris Agreement exit, to enlist Tesla as a business partner with its PowerWall technology anytime soon.

Additional costs need to be considered, too, as in permitting and licensing. The bureaucratic nightmare of scoring permits from various federal, state and local municipal agencies would scare off most solar installation contractors while piling onto the installation’s mounting costs.

Finally, could this solar wall really pay for itself? Julie Pyper of GreenTechMedia has summarized various estimates of what this massive project would cost, and more importantly, assessed whether the return on investment would even be worth it. The total cost of installing this solar wall, assuming it runs about 1,000 miles long, could range anywhere from $10 to $20 billion dollars – but these estimates do not account for the additional cost of building this structure, and plunking solar panels atop it, in the more isolated areas.

One Oregon-based solar installer, Elemental Energy, at one point estimated that the payback time of such a project could be as short as four years – a solid ROI for the Negotiator-in-Chief. But then the company updated its figures; assuming this wall generated $106 million in revenues, the payback would be about 100 years if the wall costs $10 billion to build. (Trump has long suggested the wall would cost $12 billion; his political opponents say the final amount would be far more).

Of course, as the laws of government physics go, these projects often increase in price, so if the wall ends up costing over $20 billion, not including the costs of solar panels, then we are mulling a payback period of over 200 years. That is going to be a tough sell, even if this enormous solar installation could power as many as 220,000 homes. (And yes, we are including the cost of building the entire wall including the solar panels, since we assume in this scenario that no other political path for this structure exists in order for it to be built.)

The U.S. does have an impressive history of building world-class infrastructure projects: the transcontinental railroad and the interstate highway system come to mind. The completion of a 1,000-mile solar wall would be the crowning achievement for any world leader. But the president’s diminished political capital, pushback from the states and a Congress full of politicians concerned more about their careers than that of Trump’s together provide a reality check. The solar wall is a great conversation starter, but the truth is that such a construction project will not begin anytime soon.

Image credit: Pierre Marshall/Flickr

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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