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Renewable Roadsides: How State Highways are Going Solar
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By Tina Hodges, Jayne Brady & Carter Purcell

State Departments of Transportation are recognizing that installing solar panels as an alternative use for highway Right-of-Ways (ROW) not only saves electricity costs, but also provides clean energy and creates local jobs. Highway ROWs vary in size, but generally encompass paved or unpaved property, located adjacent to the road, and are owned by the State. ROWs in many cases, are close to electrical loads and free from any development. Over the past decade, cost reductions in hardware, utility power purchase agreements and contractor tax incentives have contributed to making these sites favorable for solar development. As a result, solar and other renewable energy technologies have been deployed in the ROWs of over a dozen states across the country.

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) offers several resources that can help states develop these ROW projects. These resources include a briefing book that provides an overview of renewable energy highway project business models, funding sources, and regulatory requirements, as well as case studies and sample pilot projects detailing innovative uses of highway infrastructure such as solar noise barriers and sustainable rest areas. FHWA is also holding a series of peer exchanges to offer technical assistance and expose DOTs and private sector entities to ROW possibilities. Massachusetts (MassDOT) and Georgia (GDOT) are two of five states that have shared their roadside alternative energy experiences at a peer exchange.

MassDOT began siting solar panels in the ROWs in 2012, and now has a total of eight solar array facilities online producing roughly 5.5 million megawatts of power annually. These projects are public-private partnerships, in which the developer is responsible for project design, construction, operations, maintenance, and decommissioning solar panels at the end of the contract. No up-front funding was required from the state; instead, for their part, Massachusetts leased the sites to the developer for 20-years, and agreed to purchase all the energy generated. MassDOT also benefits from a net metering policy in which the agency sells power back to the grid at the retail rate. The developer benefits from the guaranteed sale of electricity to MassDOT and through state renewable energy credits and Federal tax incentives.

In Georgia, GDOT is working closely with the Ray C. Anderson Foundation on an 18-mile stretch of Interstate 85 (I-85) to test ROW innovations. “The Ray” is a living laboratory for emerging sustainable transportation innovations. Two pilot projects at the Georgia I-85 Visitor Information Center include a solar electric vehicle charging station and a drivable solar road surface permitted through an encroachment permit. Dubbed “the Wattway,” the road surface is made of thin, heavy-duty, skid-resistant photovoltaic pavers that are applied directly over existing paving, and which power the Visitor Information Center. GDOT, in partnership with The Ray, is considering additional innovations, including integrated solar noise barriers, ROW wind generation, and even farming in ROWs.

As renewable energy continues to expand in the public eye and new technologies enter the marketplace, states will continue to seek out new ways to grow their energy capabilities. The FHWA plans to grow these resources and support innovative local initiatives which provide clean energy and green roadsides.

Tina Hodges is an Environmental Protection Specialist on the Sustainable Transportation and Resilience Team at the Federal Highway Administration. She worked previously for the Federal Transit Administration.

Jayne Brady is an independent public relations consultant and former WCEE Board Member. Her clients include public, private and non-profit organizations focusing on energy, environmental, transportation and national security issues.

Carter Purcell is a communications professional with experience across a range of environmental issues in transportation, energy efficiency, and agriculture. She works for the Cadmus Group, supporting marketing for FHWA’s Office of Planning, Environment, and Realty.

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