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Highways: Untapped Potential

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

Opinions expressed by Bill Crittenden are not official policies or positions of The Crittenden Automotive Library. You can read more about the Library's goals, mission, policies, and operations on the About Us page.

Highways: Untapped Potential

Bill Crittenden
March 31, 2014


As land becomes ever tighter in popular places to live, humanity has learned to build in three dimensions. Subdivisions full of two-story houses, ten-story suburban office buildings, big-city skyscrapers.

Roads still remain depressingly one-dimensional in most parts of the country, despite using about 42.42 acres per mile of interstate highway, 13.33 acres per mile of state highway, and for county roads about 9.69 acres per mile (1973 USDOT).

Building lanes on top of lanes is fairly expensive and high-maintenance, reserved for the most congested and financial resource-concentrated areas, like Wacker Drive in downtown Chicago.

What if there was a way that people could use the land of rural country highways regardless of where they're living?

Some places in Germany have canopies over their parking lots.  The canopies aren't just for shade and keeping people dry in the rain, although those are nice extra benfits.  They're solar panels, using some of the land previously only used for parking cars to generate electricity.

This has a lot of potential here in the United States, but I'm thinking bigger.  What if the highways of the south and southwest could be used as electrical utilities?

Think of the potential of thousands of acres of solar panels propped up over highways from California to Mississippi, on canopies little different from the ones over gas station pumps, shading the roads and powering the offices of Los Angeles, Phoenix, Houston, and New Orleans during the daytime.

Taking the highway from L.A. to NOLA requires over 1,800 miles of mostly interstate driving.  That's over 70,000 acres of solar power generation potential on just that one route.

A simple battery storage system could make the canopies operate like an oversized set of Malibu lawn lights: power is stored during the day, and used to light the road at night by energy-efficient LED.

The potential here goes beyond the environmental, too.  All that electricity is worth money, and surplus power going back into the electrical grid is going to earn apt for the federal or state governments involved, possibly enough to offset at least some of the costs of the roadways they're straddling.  Or the land rights could be leased to a utility, who could use the acreage to generate power in exchange for a heckuva lot of money towards road maintenance and construction.

This could really range anywhere from a catastrophic waste of money on an environmental feel-good program to turning highways from costly burdens into a toll-free revenue sources and taking a major step towards American energy independence.  It all depends on how three major factors can be balanced against each other: the efficiency of the solar panels, the costs of infrastructure building, and the price of energy from other sources.

Given the right technology and conditions, highways could find an extraordinary new use that would change the way we look at highways and their potential in three dimensions.



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