Highways and Byways: Yielding for Solar

By Peggy Hammond    March 8, 2019

ISS has been a leader in developing utility-scale solar farms for the past seven years; we support all growth in the solar industry, and the industry is definitely flourishing.  Solar panels are showing up in places that may not immediately come to mind as having energy production potential.  Highway rights-of-way and noise barriers might be atypical hosts to solar arrays; nonetheless, these traditionally underused spaces are capable of producing solar energy.  In fact, some researchers are studying the possibility of putting solar tiles on highway lanes themselves.

A solar array in a highway’s right-of-way (ROW) is a clever use of a space’s potential typically untapped. This approach for solar energy production is not new however.  Several years ago, a privately funded road in Colorado began using its ROW to house multiple solar arrays, with the energy sold under a 20-year power purchase agreement, and the Oregon Department of Transportation (DOT) has more than one solar ROW project in operation.  Last fall, the Georgia Public Service Commission approved “funding for . . . a one-megawatt solar array on [Georgia’s DOT] property . . . off Interstate 85.”  This particular project will function as a pollinator-friendly habitat as well; ground cover will be native flowering plants.  In addition, a report last summer revealed a study underway “to analyse [sic] US interstate highway shoulders, mile by mile, for their solar energy generation potential.”

Putting a right-of-way to work as a solar energy generator is not the only ingenious use of space near highways.  To see this particular innovation, don’t look down; instead, look up and scan those sound barrier walls.  Noise barriers along highways already have an important job, to reduce the incessant sounds of traffic for nearby homes or businesses.  However, if those barriers can do extra work, like produce solar energy, why not use them?  Europe has several examples of solar PV noise barriers (PVNB).  Bürstadt, Germany, began using noise barriers for solar power several years ago, and the Netherlands is active in this field as well.  The Netherlands’ latest project was underway in 2018 with the installation of “68 solar noise barriers . . . [capable of generating] enough electricity to power 40 – 60 homes.”  Research is in progress to determine the best way to put PVNBs to work in the U.S.; for example, a pilot project in Lexington, MA, began in 2017.  Additionally, in 2017 the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration conducted a study that concluded “Noise barriers offer surface area additional to land and rooftops . . . to accommodate PVs . . . [and] transportation agencies should consider assessing their noise barriers for PV opportunities in conjunction with their other properties given the numerous potential benefits of PVNBs.”  Perhaps using solar panels on highway noise barriers is an idea whose time has come in the U.S.

Lastly, while still in the early days of research and an idea not supported by all, highway lanes themselves have potential to house solar panels.  Two years ago in Normandy, France, the first solar road began its trial run.  With a length of just over half a mile, the solar road’s estimated power production could operate “public lighting for a population of 5,000.”   In the U.S., Georgia is seeking ways “to turn all that pavement baking in the sun into a giant solar power source.  At the West Point Visitor Information Center, the Ray [a stretch of I85 named for Ray C. Anderson] is starting with Wattway, approximately 538 square feet of solar panels laid down on the road’s surface.  . . . [T]he photovoltaic pavers are thin and skid-resistant, and can be installed over existing pavement, so there’s no need to tear up roads.”  China is another active participant in testing solar roads, with one section of a road in Jinan “paved with solar panels.”

Rights-of-way, noise barriers, and highway lanes:  these locations are unlikely to come to mind when considering solar array installations.  Thankfully, forward thinkers see potential where the rest of us may not.  No matter the delivery method for solar power, the result is clean and sustainable, and ISS champions all those involved with bringing solar energy to more people.  For information about our utility-scale solar farms, please call 828-424-7884 or visit www.innovativesolarsystemsllc.com.