LAGRANGE — As Harriet Anderson Langford and Allie Kelly travel the stretch of Interstate 85 in western Georgia known as the Ray C. Anderson Memorial Highway, they see many of their works to admire.
The highway is named after Langford’s father, Ray Anderson, founder of carpet manufacturer Interface and sustainability advocate. The non-profit organization named Ray, created in his honor, works to make the road more sustainable, with pollinator-friendly wildflowers by the side of the road, rubberized pavement that lasts longer and, at one exit, solar panels.
“This was a completely cleared 5-acre road triangle at Exit 14 on Interstate 85,” explained Kelly, Ray’s executive director. “It was unsightly and was eroding away. And what it is today is a clean green energy field.
The land now houses 2,600 solar panels that generate one megawatt of electricity for Georgia Power’s grid, enough to power just over 100 homes. The panels are a little higher than most solar fields to allow for wildflowers to grow underneath.
“The landscape has completely changed because of the public-private partnership that brings green energy to life on what used to be underutilized and kind of wasted public land,” Kelly said.
Acres and acres of land like this line every highway in Georgia and across the country: in the reservations, along the shoulders, in the great loops made of on-and-off ramps. As transportation departments across the country work to reduce their emissions, many are considering using solar on their unused land.
But that can be daunting, so Ray and map company ESRI have created a digital tool to help.
Eddie Lukemire of Maryland’s DOT office of the environment is working on ways to use solar energy to reach the state’s ambitious goal of net-zero emissions by 2045. But the state has about 3,000 tracts of land along the its highways.
“So when you look at 3,000 rows in an Excel spreadsheet, and then look away, those are just numbers,” he said. “I don’t have a column that says, there are trees on that lot, because we don’t want to cut down any trees to put solar there.”
Ray’s tool finds the plots of land where solar would work best. Planners can make a virtual mock-up to ensure the installation doesn’t block a view or be too close to the road. MDOT hasn’t formally adopted the tool, but Lukemire said it would be useful.
“It’s really nice to be able to put that jumble of numbers into a program and have a result that is understandable for me, you, anyone who wants to show it and say, ‘Look, this is what we want to do,'” he said.
In addition to narrowing down parcels of land and providing a visual model, the tool can translate a proposed solar project into whatever terms make the most sense, whether it’s powered homes, economic value or carbon offsets.
“Delay is death for projects,” Kelly said. “We’re talking about tools that take project concepts beyond the valley of death to procurement and planning.”
The mapping tool is free, and Kelly said Ray is working with more than two dozen states to find potential solar sites. Many of these states have carbon reduction goals like Maryland does.
Oregon, for example, stopped developing solar highway despite installing two of the country’s first projects in 2008 and 2012. But an executive order from the state governor calling for an 80 percent reduction in solar emissions greenhouse gases by 2050 kicked off the programme. Now, the Oregon DOT is developing new solar projects, using Ray’s tool.
Here in Georgia there are no climate requirements like Maryland and Oregon. And there are currently no plans for more solar down the road other than installing it on the Ray.
GDOT’s John Hibbard explained that most of the agency’s unused land is about 5 to 7 acres, the same size as the existing one-megawatt solar farm.
“A megawatt, which sounds like a lot, is actually not that much,” he said. “Okay, it’s better than zero. But it doesn’t compare to hundreds or thousands of megawatts.”
The state’s largest utility, Georgia Power, has prioritized larger solar projects: massive fields of solar panels that can generate up to 100 megawatts.
Ray’s founder Langford said the small solar array is part of a larger project: to show ways to make a road full of cars more sustainable.
“Hopefully what we do inspires other places,” Langford said. “That’s our goal.”
All told, Ray estimates that there are more than 52,000 acres of empty roadside land in the continental United States that could generate solar power.