Texas power crisis, migration from Central America highlight need for U.S.-Mexico energy corridor

Texas ranch during an ice storm.

The recent weather events in Texas shocked its entire energy-water infrastructure, leaving more than 4 million homes and businesses without electricity and water, and directly causing more than 50 deaths. The economic cost is estimated at several billion dollars — way more than that of Hurricane Maria for Puerto Rico in 2017. The power grid in Texas was pushed to the brink — at one point, it was less than five minutes from a catastrophic collapse that would have led to weeks of total blackout across the state.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), a nonprofit organization responsible for operating the grid, is owned by utility companies and has been widely blamed for the infrastructure failure. ERCOT operates a power grid that is about 90 percent independent of the rest of the U.S. power infrastructure — rendering the electric power system in Texas vulnerable, operating as an island. The decision to create an independent grid was made to circumvent federal regulations, and led an already fragile community struggling with a pandemic to face individual electric bills as high as $17,000.

The world watched as two major winter storms messed with Texas. The collapse of natural gas, oil, and renewable sources of energy — the heat, power and water to homes across great swathes of the Lone Star State — may be a preview for other states or regions, in the face of extreme climate events and possibly foreign attacks on our electric grid.

A sustainable energy-water corridor along the U.S.-Mexico border could be the solution for Texas, and also for California — which, if considered a nation, would have the fifth-largest economy in the world. By producing energy and water along the border, the states facing a severe natural disaster could tap into a “superpower” energy-water source. This additionally would benefit our country’s second-largest trading partner, Mexico, which saw serious repercussions when Texas shut down gas exports for a few days after the storm.

U.S.-Mexico border: The Energy Corridor. https://www.purdue.edu/discoverypark/eco-corridor/

This nearly 2,000-mile stretch would use wind, solar and natural gas sources to generate and transport energy across northern Mexico and the southwestern U.S. The border climate is ideal for this purpose, with large amounts of solar energy, wind, and natural gas. The energy corridor also would provide a sustainable water supply to this arid region, redistributing fresh water from the Rio Grande and desalinated water from the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.

The Energy Corridor (TEC) originally was envisioned as an economic prosperity zone to provide jobs and educational opportunities for migrants, mostly coming from Central America, and for U.S. workers in the wind, solar and natural gas industries. TEC also will benefit landowners since land will be rented for energy-water production (e.g., wind and solar power plants) and agriculture.

But today, this infrastructure project — conceptualized by leading renewable-energy researchers and policy thinkers — could have significant advantages for Americans during outlier weather events like the one in Texas. During the recent crisis, TEC could have supplied Texas not only with fresh drinking water and needed electricity but also with jobs from agriculture and energy infrastructure. This project could easily be duplicated along other borders — including those between Mexico and Guatemala, Guatemala and Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, and even in South America (e.g., between Venezuela and Colombia) — to provide energy-water-food and education, thus creating long-term prosperity for borders beyond the one shared by the U.S. and Mexico.

The amount of the economic loss during the extreme weather in Texas could have funded this initiative to bring energy and water security, sustainable agriculture, and opportunities to retrain a workforce for the digital age. Building the U.S.-Mexico energy corridor is simultaneously an energy- and job-creating infrastructure project extending beyond our border with Mexico. TEC offers a chance to develop a more skilled workforce, as well a security blanket for the border states and Central America.

Dr. Luciano Castillo

Luciano Castillo, PhD Consortium Lead for The Energy Corridor (TEC), Kenninger Chair Professor of Renewable Energy and Power Systems, School of Mechanical Engineering, College of Engineering, Purdue University

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