Sustainable 'Highway of the Future' being laid in Ga.

Sustainable 'Highway of the Future' being laid in Ga.

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Just past the Alabama border, in a bit of rural Georgia filled with manufacturing plants and distribution warehouses, there’s an 18-mile stretch of Interstate 85 where new technologies are being tested for what could be a green highway of the future.

The long-term goal is to build the world’s first sustainable road, a highway that could create its own clean, renewable energy and generate income by selling power to utility companies, while producing no stormwater runoff or other pollution and eliminating traffic deaths, reports Governing.

The project, called The Ray, is an unusual collaboration between state agencies, private companies, and a family foundation that is paying for it. For now, much of the action is centered around the West Point visitors center at exit 2, where there’s the first drivable solar road surface available to the public in North America and, out back, a drive-thru automated tire safety station.

Some states, including Georgia, are using road sensors to monitor weather or improve traffic flow. Transportation departments in more than a dozen states, from Oregon to North Carolina, are using renewable energy technologies on highway rights of way.

Solar panels at Michigan rest areas and along Massachusetts highways are generating energy and saving the states money. Like The Ray, some states also are experimenting with embedding technology in the road.

In Colorado, a Transportation Department pilot program will test technology that would shift stored energy from the road to electric trucks driving on it so they could charge their batteries as they drive at full speed. The California Department of Transportation is planning to test technology that embeds photovoltaic cells in the pavement to generate power. It will be installed at exit and entrance ramps of a freeway rest area north of Los Angeles by mid-2020.

California also is experimenting with kinetic energy. In April, the California Energy Commission awarded more than $2 million in grants to test technology that uses piezoelectric sensors, crystals that generate electricity when subject to pressure or vibrations, as when vehicles drive over them. Wires in the road would connect to a transformer that collects the electricity, which could be added to the grid or used to power roadside lights and signs. The more cars that travel over the sensors, the more electricity would be generated.

Some experts are skeptical about putting wiring in the pavement, saying it could cause maintenance problems.

But Mike Gravely, a senior electrical engineer on the commission, said he doesn’t believe it will be a significant problem and that he thinks the pilot projects will be technically successful.

The federal highway system was created in 1956 to help move people and goods from Point A to Point B. Little has changed from those early days, other than lanes being added and signs updated, except that highways have gotten dirtier as more emissions from cars and trucks have polluted the air, and more stormwater runoff has tainted rivers and streams.

The goal of The Ray is to reinvent the highway so it can restore ecosystems, generate new ones, and provide the energy that moves people and goods. It was named after the late Ray C. Anderson, a local industrialist who was founder of Interface, the world’s largest carpet tile manufacturer.

One of the most eye-catching technologies at The Ray is a 20-foot-high bright red steel “solar tree” in front of the visitors center. It has 12 large photovoltaic panels attached and was installed by Kia Motors Manufacturing Georgia, a partner in the project that operates a manufacturing plant just up the road. The tree offers a free charge to electric vehicles in about 25 minutes and feeds power into the grid when it’s not being used.

In the middle of the parking lot is the Wattway, a drivable solar pavement developed by a French company that is being tested outside of France for the first time. The testing strip is 52 feet long and made of thin, skid-resistant solar panels with glass overlay. It generates clean energy from the sun when not obscured by cars, and feeds into the grid, helping to power the visitors center.

Behind the visitors center is the nation’s first public WheelRight tire safety station, which looks like a McDonald’s drive-thru. Cars drive slowly over the black-and-yellow striped pavement, where sensors take measurements. Drivers then stop at a touch screen kiosk that spits out a printed sheet or sends a text message within 20 seconds showing tire pressure and tread depth.

The Ray is leasing the British-made device for $39,000 a year, with help from Kia. Nearly 1,200 drivers have used it since it was installed in December, said Anna Cullen, The Ray’s spokeswoman.

Underinflated and overinflated tires can lead to skidding and blowouts, increasing the chance of crashes, injuries and deaths. Every year, there are about 11,000 tire-related crashes and nearly 200 fatalities, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The Ray also is focused on restoring the environment along the highway. It has invested $250,000 in landscaping the median, planted wildflower meadows, and joined Kia employees, the nonprofit Georgia Conservancy and the Chattahoochee Nature Center in creating a 7,500-square-foot pollinator garden at the visitors center. The state transportation agency helped with the projects.

At exit 14, a planned 5-acre, 3,000-panel solar farm will generate energy for the grid and nearby businesses. The Ray, the transportation department, the Georgia Public Service Commission and Georgia Power are working on the project, and ratepayers will foot the bill.

At another Ray project, on the medians near exit 6, the transportation department has planted 8 acres of native wildflowers and grasses, creating “bioswales,” drainage ditches that filter road pollution and improve water quality.


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