Photographer: Laura Segall/Bloomberg

Turning Trump's Border Wall Into a Solar Plant Is Probably a Bad Idea

An analyst takes the president at his word and estimates whether the wall could pay for itself.

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President Donald Trump suggested to House and Senate Republican leaders this week that solar panels be installed on his proposed U.S.-Mexican border wall. Under his proposal, electricity generated by the panels could be sold into the grid, and the proceeds would help pay for the wall. 

Coming less than a week after the White House pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement, Trump’s sunny remarks to Hill leaders (first reported by Axios) were counterintuitive enough to cause some to wonder. Wait. Could that actually work? 

Customs and Border Protection issued a request for proposals in mid-March for the border wall. By the April deadline, CBP had received pitches numbering in the "low hundreds," according to a May 2 update on its website.

Trump's idea is similar to one of those submissions. Thomas Gleason of Gleason Partners, a solar-support supplier and contractor in North Las Vegas, told a local NBC affiliate in April that electricity sales might pay off the panels in three or four years. Gleason did not respond to a request for comment, and a White House official declined to comment.

Gordon Johnson, a New York-based analyst at Axiom Capital Management, modeled the idea in a research note. He found:

  • A 40-foot-high wall more than 1,300 miles long would have an area of 279 million square feet.
  • The 13,358,136 21-square-foot solar panels needed to cover that much area would be rated at 4.7 gigawatts. 
  • Factoring in equipment and development costs, the solar project would add an additional $7.6 billion to Trump's $20 billion border wall.

If constructed, the border-wall-solar-plant would generate about $221 million in annual profit. Without adjusting for inflation, taxpayers would be in the black after a term of just 125 years. 

Unfortunately, the value of money changes over time. So, discounting at a rate of 10 percent, even 215 years of $221 million annual payments would shrivel up to $2.2 billion in real dollars—leaving a $25.4 billion gap.

In other words, taxpayers would never recoup their costs.

It gets worse. "Solar panels aren't even supposed to last 100 years," Johnson said in an interview Thursday. "So you'd probably have to replace them at some point."

"If you are going to build a wall anyway, the idea of putting solar panels on it is not stupid," Jenny Chase, a Zurich-based analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance, said in an email. "The idea that a few solar panels will pay for the wall is stupid."

One plus: The Mexican border is sunny, which would bump the panels' production levels above those in northern climes. 

If nothing else—should the U.S. ever build Trump's wall—there's already a call for solar panels in the minutiae of the administration's request-for-proposals itself: 

"Towers shall include a shelter for equipment as well as a power supply, in some cases requiring solar power where electrical service is not available."

With assistance from Justin Sink.

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