The United States today faces enormous challenges. A struggling economy, unemployment, border security, and access to clean and renewable energy are among the most pressing.
These problems on the surface may seem unrelated, but they really are not. In fact, there is a way to address all four at the same time by locating renewable energy infrastructure along the border, particularly in areas that are economically depressed.
The concept may seem over the top, but it makes perfect sense. The U.S.-Mexico border contains some of the most valuable solar resources on the planet. The idea is for federal, state and local governments to join forces and establish “renewable energy corridors” within border regions where the Department of Homeland Security already has invested in infrastructure associated with the SBInet (secure border initiative) virtual fence project. It is reasonable to envision the renewable energy infrastructure being integrated with SBInet.
Renewable energy corridors would establish clean energy capacity, create green jobs in areas of high unemployment, help to diversify the economy and enhance national security by expanding presence and surveillance along the border.
The private sector could provide utility scale renewable energy installations such as photovoltaic farms, solar power towers or geothermal plants. Initial federal investment is needed to cover the cost for upgrading existing transmission lines in areas such as Imperial County, Calif., which flow to nearby energy markets in San Diego, Los Angeles and Phoenix.
The federal government could even recoup its investment after a few years of operation through allocation of “wheeling” fees — transmission tolls which the local utility typically collects.
The security challenges along the U.S.-Mexico border have, to some degree, diverted public attention away from the significant economic and sustainable energy opportunities that the region offers. In remote border areas, multi-purposed renewable energy infrastructure should be considered an effective avenue to enhance security and stability and an innovative means to exploit the enormous renewable energy potential of the region.
Strategically located utility scale renewable energy infrastructure (solar, wind and geothermal) can generate thousands of megawatts of electricity while perimeter fencing and surveillance installations surrounding these facilities can help DHS’ efforts to secure the border.
Renewable energy facilities within a designated corridor in the border region can also increase economic opportunities in the United States and Mexico. Green jobs will reduce economic marginalization of target communities — and possibly reduce crime rates. This could generate millions of dollars in recurring tax revenues for state and local governments that are now struggling with the associated costs of border related crimes.
A plan focusing initially on Imperial County provides a preliminary operational design and business model. This area is a good starting point because of its sunny climate, extensive system of transmission lines and rights of way along the southern border and its proximity to major Southern California cities.
Security is a significant challenge. The border region has experienced illegal border crossings, related deaths and drug traffic and crime in rural and remote areas. The harsh environment has resulted in deaths from dehydration, freezing and drowning. DHS has spent more than $1.3 billion on fences and surveillance systems, but it has become clear that these installations have limited coverage and utility.
Economic considerations also are key. Imperial County’s 30 percent unemployment rate is the highest in the nation. The region is not well diversified from an industrial base perspective and depends largely on agriculture. To make matters worse, Imperial County spends millions of dollars each year covering the cost of providing services to undocumented immigrants.
Environmental concerns are also a major factor. California has in place one of the most ambitious “renewables portfolio standard” (RPS) that compels utility companies to increase procurement of green energy resources to 33 percent by 2020.
Although the renewable energy corridor can include any combination of energy options, the Imperial Valley region is broadly prospective for solar and, to a more focused degree, geothermal energy. The corridor could operate similar to an industrial park, with different companies and a range of technologies co-existing within the same general area. Utility scale solar and geothermal facilities within the corridor could include double security fencing and attached surveillance systems. Surveillance data collected within the corridor would also be integrated with the SBInet and Customs and Border Protection command centers to facilitate tactical decision making and law enforcement responses.
An area 80 miles long and one-quarter mile wide north of the international border could serve as a photovoltaic solar corridor. When operational, it could produce upwards of 2,102,400 MW hours of power annually. This would equate to generating $231 million in revenues per year.
The introduction of new and high-tech renewable energy opportunities will also broaden the local employment base and raise the overall economic profile and image of the community.
Not all jobs created by a large-scale renewable energy corridor will land in the United States, however. Mexico is now beginning to gain green jobs — many outsourced by U.S. based solar cell manufacturers. While at first glance this may not appear optimal, creating jobs in Mexico will discourage local workers from illegal immigration as more green jobs open up in their own country.
A big hurdle for any new renewable energy project in the West is moving power to customers. There simply isn’t enough capacity on existing transmission lines to handle the additional electricity from one or more new utility scale solar installations.
More research is needed on how best to structure an initial infrastructure investment by DHS. The investment would be significantly less than the current total cost of SBInet, and would allow over time for reimbursement of federal spending through revenue generation from electricity sales.
Thus, after a solar facility starts to generate revenues, the electricity would be wheeled to Southern California Edison or the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power territory. The Imperial Irrigation District typically receives “wheeling revenues” when a tie in occurs in their district. These same wheeling revenues could be applied to partially reimburse the federal investor — until an agreed upon project payout point is reached
A transmission upgrade would also incentivize renewable energy companies to participate as connections to the California grid would become easier. This would allow DHS to be reimbursed for their transmission upgrade investment and create the seed capital for an economically dire area of the country to rebound and prosper.
While Imperial County’s 105-mile border area is secured by 989 CBP agents, 13.3 miles of primary fencing (no secondary fencing) and 10.8 miles of vehicle barriers, these measures failed to restrain 33,520 people who were apprehended by the Border Patrol within the El Centro sector during 2009. It is believed that thousands more escaped scrutiny by slipping through the permeable and remote border outside the urban areas of Mexicali.
Even if DHS decided to abandon or curtail SBInet, it would not be too late for the department to consider how to integrate renewable energy infrastructure into the existing border security architecture. While a renewable energy corridor and related transmission upgrades will require upfront capital investment from both the private and public sector, pay back in terms of clean energy, revenue generation and enhanced border surveillance can justify the investment.
The corridor can host a range of renewable technologies — essentially operating as a renewable energy and border security zone. It is possible that a variety of utility scale solar energy technologies are suitable. One option is concentrating solar power — thermal power towers, dish arrays and troughs. Another is photovoltaic solar power — flat fixed panels, or tilted rotating panels.
Under the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, the California Fish and Game and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service helped identify the best areas to site renewable energy, while avoiding conflicts with endangered species and sensitive areas.
The Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management said most of Imperial Valley borderlands were “disqualified from further consideration for potential habitat and ecology issues.” But the site selection process did not consider the significant benefits that a renewable energy project could provide in terms of border surveillance.
Setting up a renewable energy corridor near the Imperial County/Mexico border also offers important practical advantages: Existing transmission rights of way following the international border would carry electricity to major utility markets in San Diego, Los Angeles and Arizona. The corridor would be located on public lands administered by BLM. Coordinating with one primary entity rather than hundreds of private landowners offers advantages in terms of time and coordination.
Initial research indicates that several transmission lines near the border would need to be upgraded. Moreover, any action on federal lands will require compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act process to protect the lands and desert ecosystem.
A project of this size is never simple. But the payback would be huge.
Karen L. Jones is a technology strategy and management consultant with a focus in energy, environment and natural resource policy. She works for The Aerospace Corporation in Arlington, Va. Email: Karen.email@example.com