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What good could we do with Trump’s wall money?

A U.S. Mexico border wall made of money that could be better spent on solar panels, of course
February 15th, 2017

Donald Trump’s proposed border wall between the United States and Mexico has gone from a campaign promise to a real thing we’re all talking about. So let’s talk about it.

Disclaimer: we’re not trying to get all political up in here. Instead, we’re merely pointing out what a sure bet it would be to use a similar amount of money to install solar panels. Solar isn’t a partisan issue. It’s the cheapest form of new electricity generation, and the fuel is free.

Last year around this time, Mr. Trump made claims that his wall would cost $8 billion. Now, with the benefit of serious economic analysis undertaken by the Department of Homeland Security, we’re looking at a cost more like $21.6 billion.

Mr. Trump, of course, says he can bring the price “WAY DOWN,” which prompted one commenter at the Washington Post website to quip “Why is Trump trying to cut costs if the Mexicans will be paying for the wall?”

All this has even spawned countless think pieces about the economic impact of the wall, and even some about better ways to spend the money.

This article is of the latter type.

Forget the wall, install!

Solar panels in a utility installation

As you might have guessed, we’re going to recommend installing solar panels instead of building the wall.

This idea isn’t actually new—while researching this issue, we came across two recent articles about making a border wall with solar panels.

But we’re here to reject the idea of a wall altogether. The border wall is not sure to save us money, and its purpose can be negated with a ladder. And even though putting solar panels in the sunniest place in the country sounds like a good idea, it creates more problems than it solves.

Here are the disadvantages of building a wall of solar panels along the border:

  • The raw materials needed to build the wall need to be transported to the site, adding cost.
  • The energy produced by the panels would have to be transmitted to population centers. A solid analysis of this idea cites a cost of $3.2 million per mile for a so-called “electricity transmission superhighway.” Lots more cost.
  • The companies that would most benefit from building a wall, solar panels or not, would be those situated close to the border. “Bringing costs way down” would likely mean using Mexican companies who can pay their workers less.

It’s simple—the collateral costs of a solar border wall are hugely burdensome. Here’s what we propose instead:

Whatever will get through congress and get more solar done.

Rosie the Solar Riveter

Call it the Solar New Deal… or don’t, as long as it happpens

Here’s the deal: solar energy is the future. Last year in the Unites States, nearly 40% of all new electric generation was solar, and the amount of solar installed nearly doubled, from the previous year.

This growth is possible because the lifetime costs of new utility-scale solar are now cheaper than those of natural gas power plants. At current prices, the $21.6 billion for the proposed border wall could pay for 20 Gigawatts of utility solar instead—enough to power 2.6 million homes.

a chart showing the potential increase in solar power generation from $21.6 billion

So we should do it.

Build more solar near cities

We think the best course of action is a series of large-scale solar installations near major cities. Like we said above, $21.6 billion is enough to increase current solar production by 50%.

The effects of this program would immediately grow the already strong solar industry, creating tens of thousands of new jobs for Americans and continuing to bring down costs for the future. Furthermore, the capital investment necessary would be paid back over the lifespan of the project from sales of the electricity generated.

Solar Power + cities = a match made in heaven

solar panels overlooking Vancouver, Canada

More than 80% of Americans live in cities, and they use a lot of electricity. Siting large-scale solar installations near cities would eliminate nearly all of the problems associated with generating electricity on the border. Let us count the ways:

  • Raw materials can be kept close to current centers of manufacturing and shipping
  • The energy produced can be used immediately or easily stored in batteries or some other method (i.e. pumped hydro) for later use
  • Instead of foreign companies using cheap labor, this project will require a great many good-paying jobs near those cities

Those good-paying jobs would not stick around just long enough to finish the job of installing the panels. The beautiful thing about a direct-procurement program like this is how big an impact it might have on the solar marketplace.

Solar jobs for the future

People shaking hands under solar panels

The solar industry already employs more than 260,000 Americans, with more jobs being added all the time. The rate of new solar jobs equals at least 7.5 jobs per MW of solar installed.

The Solar New Deal we’re proposing above would see a total of 16,000 MW of solar installed, meaning about 120,000 new solar jobs.

And these are good jobs that would help workers thrive in the coming decades. The Bureau of Labor Statistics cites an average hourly wage of about $20 for a solar installer—nearly triple the federal minimum wage of $7.25.

So we can create jobs, help American businesses, grow the economy, accelerate a transition to renewable energy, and still earn a return on our investment? Yes, and there are a number of ways to do it. Here are a few:

How we get it done

Tax breaks for utility companies

This might be the most reasonable thing to expect from our current government. Congress loves giving out tax breaks, right?

Seriously, though, a strategic tax cut for utility companies that ties credits to benchmarks for amounts of installed solar and includes provisions to freeze the price energy consumers pay could do wonders, for utility companies as well as their customers.

Public-private partnership

The federal government has already been involved in several projects where private corporations are allowed to install solar on public lands.

Just installing solar on public lands near cities in the west might work, but ideally the government would work with states and cities to build solar nearer to the largest metropolises in the country.

a map of federally-owned lands in the United States

A map of all federally-owned U.S. land. Soure: Wikimedia foundation.

Direct ownership

We’re not proposing socialism and central-planning, here. The Feds already own over half the hydroelectric generation facilities in the country. This wouldn’t be much different.

Installing solar this way could get the government the best price, and at current wholesale electricity rates, the energy generated over the life of the project could end up making taxpayers a good return on their investment.

Are we ready for a Solar New Deal?

Putting aside questions of how important it is to decarbonize our economy, we think it’s clear that a Solar New Deal can play an essential role in shaping our country’s future.

With near-term advancements in automation and an increasingly electrified transportation system, we’re going to need all the electricity we can get. And going forward, renewable generation like solar just makes sense, providing decades of power for small investments today.

But here’s the truth: No matter what the government does, utility companies are going to install solar. The question is who it’s going to benefit more, and we think the government should get involved to make sure us electricity consumers get the best deal.

We might build a wall, but let’s invest in a sure thing like solar, too.

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