Not The Onion: Trump proposed covering his untenable border wall with solar panels

One of the solar-paneled wall designs proposed for the Mexico border. CREDIT: Advanced Warning Systems

With both Mexico and Congress refusing to pay for his proposed border wall on the southern border, President Donald Trump has reportedly been pitching a new idea: a wall with solar panels that could pay for itself.

This may sound like a story in The Onion — Trump embraces renewable energy as a highly profitable investment immediately after he exited the Paris climate agreement, claiming a shift to clean energy was a bad deal for America.

But Trump did in fact propose this at a meeting of GOP congressional leaders Tuesday, according to several people in attendance. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) told The Hill, “one idea he is looking at is a wall that would actually function as a solar panel to ultimately pay for itself.” Scalise told the Wall Street Journal this option “sounds like it’s got real promise.”

It’s hard to imagine the party of “small government,” which has largely worked to undermine renewables at a state and federal level, backing a multibillion-dollar government plan to build the world’s biggest solar system. Trump’s own budget calls for cutting renewable energy funding by an astonishing 70 percent.

It’s true that two different companies actually submitted designs for a solar-powered border wall to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in March. And it’s true that new solar power in the region has become super-cheap.

But the reality of the border makes this wildly impractical. For instance, the solar design from Advanced Warning Systems (top image), imagines an idyllic environment for solar panels. Here’s a real picture:

Rio Grande Flood water in Laredo, Texas, July 15, 2010. CREDIT: AP/Eric Gay

The vast majority of the border that is not currently fenced runs straight down the middle of 1,254 snaking miles of the Rio Grande River — and ever-worsening, climate change-fueled floods greatly complicate any plausible design.

The devastating Texas flooding of May 2015, for instance, dumped more than 35 trillion gallons of water on the state. A 2015 study concluded that human-caused warming “contributed to the physical processes that caused the persistent precipitation in May 2015.”

Where could you build this solar-paneled wall given that floods along the Rio Grande can be so huge that they are visible from outer space?

Rio Grande flooding September 22, 2008 (upper image), compared to normal conditions (lower image). Flooding can be seen from Presdio, Texas to Big Bend National Park (lower right). CREDIT: NASA.

The wall would be an ecological disaster waiting to happen.

No wonder that when a pair of academics proposed a solar-paneled wall in the Wall Street Journal in March, they put it in Mexico — situated on its super sunny “high central plateau deserts.”

The Financial Times looked at the economics of the solar-paneled wall on the U.S. side earlier this year. They concluded it’s a “non-starter,” noting, for instance, that “less than 2 percent of the U.S. population lives within 40 miles of the Mexico border.” That means you’d need a multibillion-dollar power line, too.

Here’s a much simpler suggestion: skip the wall and just put solar panels directly on homes.