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Rebecca Barthelmie, left, and Sara Pryor, shown here conducting wind research in 2017, are part of an academic group that proposes creating an energy-water corridor for the U.S.-Mexico border.

Academics propose U.S.-Mexico ‘energy-water corridor’

A network of about 30 academics from around the United States – including two Cornell wind energy experts – have developed a white paper in which they propose that the U.S. and Mexico collaborate to build a “Future Energy, Water, Industry and Education Park” along their 1,989-mile border.

Instead of a passive wall – proposed by President Trump as an answer to stem illegal immigration and drug trafficking – the border would instead feature solar farms, wind turbines, agriculture, teaching opportunities and jobs to fulfill the energy and economic needs for both countries.

“It has been decades since the United States undertook a project of this magnitude, but now is the time to advance big ideas to solve societally relevant problems and maintain our strategic position as a nation of energy innovators,” said Sara C. Pryor, professor of earth and atmospheric sciences.

The consortium is led by Luciano Castillo, a professor of engineering at Purdue University. Given that the U.S.-Mexico border stretches through arid and semi-arid regions and features abundant high solar irradiation and wind resources, an energy corridor is feasible and desirable, bringing substantial business opportunities for both countries, according to the white paper.

“This novel initiative also has the potential to mitigate illegal immigration into the U.S., due to the vast infrastructure and employment opportunities that would be created on both sides of the border,” the researchers write.

The paper’s co-authors include researchers from a variety of institutions. Cornell’s Pryor and Rebecca J. Barthelmie, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, specialize in developing wind as a renewable energy resource.

“Wind energy deployments in the U.S. have doubled over the last seven years, and those deployments are projected to double again over the next four years,” Barthelmie said. The border region has extensive solar and wind resources but faces water scarcity. Thus, said Pryor: “Deployment of large-scale wind and solar electricity generation plants can supply much needed carbon-free electricity and/or energy for use in desalination of water, and help provide clean water.”

Even with limited, targeted deployments in the best-resource areas along the border, Pryor estimates that wind and solar energy could provide 16 gigawatt hours (about 25 percent of all U.S. solar electricity generated in 2017) of electricity per day at competitive prices.

“That electricity could either be used to power sea water desalination plants or supply the national electric grid, or be designed for high-demand electricity periods and desalination during off-peak hours,” Pryor said.

The group also suggests creating specialized institutes along the border that could expand innovations related to manufacturing, construction, engineering, management and agriculture. They could also provide workforce development and mentoring.

The proposed energy-water corridor, the group says, has the potential to host large agricultural production, relieve energy and water needs, and food shortages, reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide and create wealth for the U.S. and Mexico.

Wrote the researchers: “It has the potential to make the desert bloom.”

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Lindsey Hadlock