Published on March 29th, 2019 | by Jennifer Sensiba0
The Borderland & The Wall: Future Renewable Powerhouse, Or Environmental Disaster?
March 29th, 2019 by Jennifer Sensiba
West Texas and southern New Mexico, known locally as “The Borderland,” has a lot of potential. With abundant and powerful sunshine, wind, and some hydroelectric resources, there’s the potential to become a renewable energy powerhouse. Sadly, there’s also great potential for the politics of isolationism to turn the borderland into a corridor of environmental destruction and human suffering.
The Great Potential For Good
The areas along the border in both Texas and New Mexico have extremely good potential for renewable energy, and in quantities that can help the whole country.
Being part of the Southwest, it should be rather obvious that the area has solar going for it, but it’s even better than one may think. While the region surrounding El Paso, Texas, isn’t as hot as Phoenix, Arizona, the difference is usually only 5–10 degrees. It might seem backwards, but all other things being equal, hotter temperatures are bad for solar energy production. Heat causes extra resistance, which reduces the amount of energy each panel can put out. Compared to the even hotter areas around Death Valley, California, the Borderland has an even bigger edge.
Like the hotter areas in Arizona and California, the air is dry. Outside of the monsoon season of late summer, cloudy days aren’t that common. Less humidity also means more solar energy gets through the air and to the panels. Also, the available land for solar farms is plentiful throughout the Southwest.
Another lesser-known advantage in the Borderland is wind power. Many readers may think of the Midwest or offshore areas as being best for wind, but while those areas have widespread areas with good winds, there are some downright powerful winds in the Borderland, with isolated pockets that put most of the country to shame.
If you look at the map on the right, you’ll see that there are large pockets of the state with a brown color, indicating below-average winds. Green and yellow areas are weaker still. The more powerful winds are shown by the red, purple and blue areas. While eastern New Mexico and the Texas panhandle do have broader areas with powerful winds, the small dots of red and purple in the Borderland could ultimately prove easier to get the most power from. Why? Powerlines.
The Borderland’s One-Two Punch
Putting in transmission lines to carry power to where people will use it is a big investment, and it’s one that can hamper renewables. Renewables can be intermittent, with power output being great in one season or day, and low or dead the next. Putting in the infrastructure to carry the power from the best days can be unprofitable when there are other days that the extra capacity is being unused. While batteries are one possible way to deal with this, it may work even better to combine different types of renewables together to level the power output out.
The Borderland’s pockets of high wind are smaller, but they are also in the part of the country that has the highest solar outputs. This makes both resources capable of a market synergy that would leave them each less valuable on their own.
One More Good Punch For The Knockout
Hydroelectric power could be one more asset that could make the Borderland’s renewable energy an even more potent mix.
Like the rest of the Southwest, water is a big issue for the Borderland. Intermittent water is the biggest problem. Snow melting from the higher elevations in the American West naturally comes down the rivers in the Southwest in great spring floods, followed by a dwindling of the water to a trickle by the next winter. While there are certainly good environmental arguments against building dams on the rivers, the dams were built and have enabled a much better quality of life for humans in the Southwest.
What the last century’s dam builders didn’t know was that their flow measurements were largely taken during record years for snowmelt, even when we consider that temperatures were lower in those decades than today. As the record years ended, and as the climate warmed, water supplies available from the dams dwindled. This has not only led to supply issues, but has led to underutilized hydroelectric plants and intense interstate and international legal battles going while the hydro plants sit unused for growing portions of the year.
But what if there was a way to get more good from the hydroelectric plants?
It turns out that there is a way: pumped storage. Even when solar and wind are combined, there will still be high and low points for output. By using energy during the highs to pump water upstream and dump it back behind a dam, that energy can then be saved to generate hydroelectric power again when supplies from wind and solar farms are low. Even better, the Borderland has two large water reservoirs near each other: the Caballo and the Elephant Butte.
By using the abundant solar and wind power to push water upstream from the Caballo Reservoir to the Elephant Butte Reservoir, this energy can be saved for later at a much lower cost than lithium-ion batteries or nearly any other method for storage.
During last year’s midterm elections, there were lots of changes for New Mexico. Incumbent governor Susana Martinez had already served two terms, and could not run for reelection. With negative sentiment toward Donald Trump running high, a new Democratic governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, was elected and Democrats increased their legislative majority by several seats. While we will need to wait until the end of the current legislative session to see what the full short-term impacts will be, we do know that the new governor is making a number of positive moves for renewable energy and a transition away from emissions in the state.
On the other hand, Texas has not really changed. Republicans continue to hold both legislative chambers and the governor’s seat as they have since 2003, allowing them a great deal of control. As renewables have become cheaper in recent years, Texas does continue to slowly transition to renewables, but this is in spite of Republican control and not something they have sought to encourage.
The Potential For Death & Environmental Destruction
The Borderland has been in the news quite a bit recently. Not only does the fight over border wall construction continue in the area, but disputes over crime figures and the need for the wall have boiled over with a presidential visit to the area. Most recently, the Pentagon announced funding for more border wall construction. This could mean some very bad things for our area.
Human impacts of wall construction
Most of the people talking about the border don’t live anywhere near it. There are obvious impacts to blocking migration, as well as those that are less obvious.
The impacts we usually hear about are the deaths in the desert. People can’t cross near cities, and are forced to cross much farther away in the desert. Even during winter months, the temperature can get over 80 degrees on some days, and the same abundant sunshine that we might use to create solar energy instead takes a toll on people who were already short on food and water. When the sun sets, the temperature can quickly plummet 40 degrees or more. The sudden drop in temperature, which can drop below freezing in the winter, can kill people just as much as the summer heat. There really is no good time of year to be out there without supplies.
What we hear less of are the impacts to communities next to fences. The biggest problem is flooding. Nature doesn’t really care about the imaginary lines we draw, and when we are foolish enough to assume otherwise, we sometimes suffer nature’s wrath. Sometimes dry creekbeds (known locally as arroyos) suddenly fill with water after a summer thunderstorm. Millions of gallons of monsoon rains suddenly saturate the desert soil, and generate flash floods, which can take years worth of debris and wood downstream. All of this, plus trash that gathers in the arroyos, can quickly turn a fence designed to let water through into a water-tight wall. At this point, the wall either gives way under the force of the water, or the water gets redirected into houses and businesses along the border. Either result can destroy property or even kill.
Engineers and the International Boundary and Water Commission try to mitigate these issues by planning drainage tunnels and culvert pipes to move the water, but federal officials don’t always follow the plan. In several cities, the Border Patrol blocked drainage tunnels to stop people from using them to cross the border. It may take years, but eventually the engineers are proven right when the clogged tunnels result in major floods.
The Southwest Environmental Center has been fighting the border wall and its predecessors for years. Along the way, and with help from university researchers, they’ve learned a lot about what border walls and border fences do to wildlife.
I reached out to Amanda Munro, and she basically reiterated what the Center shares on its website. There is very high mammal biodiversity along the border in southern New Mexico and west Texas. Over millions of years, these animals became accustomed to conditions in the area, and don’t do well with sudden changes. To get food, water, and to find mates, these animals have always crossed through the area, long before there was anything like a border. Now, many species are too big to pass through the gaps in the fence and will be cut off from things they need.
Some try to claim that this is only a story environmentalists are telling to oppose the border wall, but SWEC volunteers have been gathering evidence of this. With automated cameras, they’ve caught a broad variety of animals crossing the border, often in sight of the ends of the fence.
Which Future Will The Borderland End Up With?
At this point, both futures are winning.
On the one hand, New Mexico is pushing ahead with renewable energy, while market forces are pushing Texas in the same direction, regardless of what politicians might want. The most ambitious projects in the area are probably yet to come.
On the other hand, none of this is for sure. The Trump administration keeps trying to do what it can to stifle renewables and tip the market toward dirty energy. So far, they haven’t been able to do much, and with a Democratic house opposing them, it might not be possible now. However, this is something we need to watch for.
The border wall, on the other hand, seems to be crawling forward. By using “national emergency” powers, Trump got the Pentagon to move funds from other projects to continue dozens of miles of new construction. Multiple lawsuits are trying to stop this, but it is unlikely to stop the most immediate construction. Each mile is an additional hardship for wildlife, and pushes migrants further out into the desert. Every arroyo crossed and every mile along the river chances more flooding, death, and destruction.