Meet the designer of Trump’s solar wall

Source: Adam Aton, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, June 8, 2017

When reports surfaced late yesterday that President Trump was floating the idea of a border wall covered in solar panels, many observers found it hard to take seriously.

“I mean, it’s physically possible. It seems politically silly,” said Michael Webber, deputy director of the University of Texas’ Energy Institute. “This is a bizarre way do do solar power, and it’s a bizarre way to build a wall.”

But Tom Gleason, the North Las Vegas businessman who submitted a federal bid earlier this year for a border wall bedecked in solar panels, isn’t surprised his plan got the president’s attention. He wasn’t alone. At least one other firm submitted plans for a wall that included solar panels.

“Why not put it on the wall?” Gleason said, reached on his cellphone in Shanghai at dawn. “That’s a no-brainer on it paying for itself.”

Striking a hard line on immigration during his campaign, Trump promised to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it. With the latter half of that pledge looking unlikely, Trump suggested to congressional Republican leaders yesterday that selling solar power from the structure could finance the project instead.

Would that actually work?

Earlier this year, Jigar Shah, co-founder of sustainable infrastructure financing firm Generate Capital Inc., did some rough math that suggested yes, it just might, in certain scenarios.

If the wall were 65 feet high, he wrote, you could fit five rows of panels running the entire length of the border. That would generate about $396 million per year — and over a 40-year life span, that would amount to more than $15.8 billion.

Gleason’s wall would be shorter, and it doesn’t call for solar panels across its entire length. But that might not be a deal breaker.

He estimates his design would cost $6.5 million to $7.5 million per mile — so at the low end, it would cost about $13 billion to fence off the roughly 2,000-mile border.

What about getting that solar power to users?

“That’s actually the beauty of it,” Gleason said. Distributing the power along the wall would be easy, he said, since the grid would be integrated into the structure. Some of the electricity would go to operating the wall’s lights and sensors, along with nearby law enforcement outposts, he said, and the rest could go to border towns.

Such abundant electricity could even spur a development boom along both sides of the wall, he said. More farms could spring up around the Rio Grande, and every exit along the wall could become a business hub.

“What if … it becomes such a big benefit, property values go up, everybody’s happy,” he said, then paused. “Not everybody will be happy, of course.”

What would keep people from damaging the sensitive solar cells attached to the wall?

“That’s a good point: It’s called surprise, surprise, surprise,” Gleason said.

Creating a fenced-off buffer zone around the wall would help, and he added that there are other measures he can’t mention. “Part of our cleaning process uses water to flush the panels periodically,” he said. “If that happens to have a high level of chlorine, and their eyes start burning and so forth, that’s not our fault.”

But, he added, “the way we have it designed, they really can’t get up to that point unless they’re Tom Cruise.”

Gleason said nobody from the administration has contacted him yet, but he wouldn’t be surprised if Trump, as a developer, has already drawn up the plans himself.

“He’s had a year and a half to doodle,” he said.