Donald Trump's border wall has always been an ineffective, immoral, and incredibly expensive idea. But lately he's been making it even worse, by suggesting that it double as a giant solar power plant.
The president first floated this notion back in June, saying that a wall topped with solar panels "creates energy and pays for itself." Now, with work on border wall prototypes getting underway, his idea doesn't seem to be just a passing fancy.
"Solar panels or technology bundles on top of the fence certainly isn't off the table," Mario Villarreal, the new division chief for San Diego's Customs and Border Protection field office, told The Washington Examiner yesterday. Villarreal's office is overseeing the construction of eight different border wall prototypes.
How exactly solar panels would make a border wall better is not entirely clear. Solar technology would be a poor migrant repellent, and there is every reason in the world to doubt that it would actually bring the costs of a wall down.
Some number crunching by Business Insider puts the cost of simply installing a solar array along the southern border at somewhere between $1.4 billion and $4.2 billion—all to generate maybe $100 million worth of electricity a year. Those estimates, mind you, do not include the cost of transmission lines, software, energy storage systems, regular maintenance, and everything else that goes into getting power from panels to people.
California already spends $9 million a year maintaining its own portion of our current low-tech border wall. Constantly replacing solar panels damaged by storms or smugglers would make the price sky-high.
Trump's other protectionist policies have only compound these expenses. In April, the president signed a number of executive orders instructing his administration to adhere to several "Buy American" rules for government procurement.
As Dan Ikenson of the Cato Institute told Reason at the time, such requirements only drive up the cost of government projects. "If we're talking about a $1 trillion infrastructure project, we might only get $500 billion of infrastructure."
Meanwhile, the Trump administration may start slapping tariffs on solar panels. Last month the International Trade Commission declared that imported Chinese solar panels were hurting American manufacturing jobs; it will soon recommend to the White House whether or not to impose new trade barriers in response.
Should those tariffs go through, the U.S. market will be starved of cheaper competition, sapping already-subsidized domestic solar companies' incentive to innovate and bring prices down. That means U.S. taxpayers would have to shell out even more for 1,000 miles of solar border fencing.
Taken one at a time, Trump's various protectionist policies come across as costly and counter-productive. When merged into the single idea of a solar border wall, they combine into an absurd and contradictory mess. To protect American workers with a giant border wall, Trump wants to spend even more money covering that wall with high-cost American solar panels that he may make even more expensive with tariffs.
If that counts as winning, I'm already sick of it.