Let’s Terraform West Texas
[I’m half serious about this. I’m somewhat doubtful that it would work, but I like the idea. At the very least I think it would make a fantastic plot for a solar punk novel. If you want to rip it off for a story, go right ahead.]
I went to an ACX meetup yesterday and mentioned an idea that I’ve had off and on for a few years- terraforming the West Texas desert. They suggested I write something about it, so here is that something.
West Texas has a huge amount of cheap land. I just went looking again and the first page of results were all between about $800 and $1700 per acre. Sorting by cheapest price per acre, I found several lots of 50 acres or so for 27-30k, which works out to about $550 an acre- and there are cheaper prices for larger chunks of land- there are multiple listings for 1000+ acre lots. The reason I mention this is to make it clear that the land out there is cheap and plentiful. The reason why it’s cheap and plentiful is because it’s damn near worthless- it’s desert. The water underneath the land is often brackish. The heat is unrelenting. The sun never stops shining.
West Texas is hot, dry and bright almost year around. Go to this website and select El Paso from the drop down- that region gets 5.87-7.42 peak sun hours every day, where “peak sun hours” is sunlight at maximum, unobstructed intensity- ~1000 watts of power per square meter. This is prime solar-panel land, but you can’t get that power to anywhere that people actually want to live. At a minimum, it would require hundreds of miles of power lines and infrastructure. If you wanted to use your electrical power locally, however, you have a near-endless supply. The only problem is storing it.
Conveniently, one of the other things that West Texas has in large quantities is brackish water, which coincides neatly with the cheapest land prices. You could store your electricity by pumping this water up into large reservoirs and retrieve it by allowing the water to flow back down to the aquifer through turbines. This is called pumped-storage hydroelectricity and it’s about 70-87% efficient- you lose 20-30% of your power, but once the water is pumped to the reservoir, there’s no loss of power over time- it can sit in a covered reservoir forever. Cool- but now what? You have endless electrical power and a method of storing it until you need it, but what’s the point?
The point is this mid-sized industrial desalination plant. With endless electricity and gravity-fed brackish water, you could divert some of that brackish water from generating electricity to a desalination plant. I haven’t been able to find any detailed discussion of the power requirements for one of these machines. As for capability- the manual states that it can handle up to 2000 ppm total dissolved solids (TDS), which maps to the “slightly saline” regions in this report (page 5). There may be other, larger desalination plants for sale that could handle more-brackish water (3k-30k ppm TDS) which would give you more options, land-wise.
These desalination systems can produce 10-50k gallons of water per day. Which is a lot, but I’m not sure how much you would need- I imagine you could just have more than one desalination plant hooked up in parallel if one wasn’t enough.
The waste from the desalination plant is all the crap that was in a large volume of brackish water, now concentrated into a much smaller amount of water. It seems like there are two possible ways to handle this waste. You could either dump it back into the aquifer that you pumped it out of or extract the minerals from the wastewater and sell them. Saline water contains salt, magnesium, calcium, potassium and a lot of other useful minerals. If it were dumped back into the aquifer, over a long enough period of time it would (I assume) make the aquifer more brackish than it was originally, which isn’t great. Extraction is probably ideal. This paper discusses different ways to extract minerals from brackish water- the most low-tech way to do it would probably be with evaporation pools.
The down side is that evaporation pools require a lot of cleared land and a very hot environment- but you would have both. The up side is that you could probably collect evaporated water from the pools to augment the desalination plant’s clean water output. If the evaporation method produced water quickly enough and in large enough quantities, it may even be possible to replace the more fragile and failure-prone desalination plant entirely. You would need to run the numbers on that, though.
Additionally, some of the minerals extracted from the water could be used in the manufacture of solar panels- I haven’t investigated this closely, but I know that lithium and magnesium (often found in high saline water) are used in battery manufacturing. Depending on the aquifer and the composition of the water, it’s possible that the solar panels could eventually produce an equivalent amount of minerals to replace those used in their manufacture.
It would be neat if so.
So now you have an unlimited supply of electricity, a storage solution that wastes 20% of your electricity but can store the remainder forever (not that big a deal given your plentiful electrical source), and an essentially bottomless supply of fresh water. All in the middle of a desert, probably hundreds of miles from the nearest large city where no sane person would want to live. So what, exactly, is the point of all this?
The point is to terraform West Texas.
West Texas is a desert wasteland studded with a few major cities, but otherwise populated entirely by crazy people who want to own land no matter how shitty that land is. Large parts of the state are absolutely worthless for either living or farming. What I’ve just described is (assuming it works) a method to sustainably produce clean water in large enough quantities to keep crops, trees, grass and animals alive and growing. Once a region is green and thriving with little to no water/electrical support from the outside world- you sell it to someone who will farm it and move on to the next project.
The cost of creating one of these farms would depend on how much water you would need to keep the land arable. Working backwards, you would find a desalination plant that could produce that amount of water, and then estimate the electrical requirements for both the plant and the distribution system (sprinklers, drip watering etc.) plus excess that would be necessary for the people who would live on the farm. The bulk of your expense would probably be solar panels.
|$13000 - $55000k
|$5000 - $40000
|$4000 - $20000
So a bare minimum of about $100k, probably double or triple that after everything is done.
The goal isn’t to make a real profit- the goal is to make enough of a profit to continue building more solar/desalination farms. A third of Texas is over brackish water. Something like half of New Mexico has brackish water. If large parts of that land were converted to sustainable farmland, the amount of food they could produce would be enormous, greatly reducing the cost of eating for anyone within easy shipping distance and reducing reliance on imported food from outside the US.
The same strategy could be used anywhere in the world where you have uninhabitable land that either borders on an ocean or has brackish aquifers underneath. This seems like a clear win for the future survival of humanity- If we can produce more food in regions that generally have to import, we could protect a lot of people from disrupted supply lines during global disasters and military conflicts.
EDIT: Someone on discord pointed out that dust makes it difficult to maintain solar panels in deserts. This is a problem that would need to be solved, but it looks like there may be systems in the near future that could automatically clean dust from the panels without damaging them.