Road of Dreams: Why 18km stretch became testing ground for clean technologies

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Nexus Media

Source: The Ray

It’s not often that captains of industry have epiphanies about climate change, so it was remarkable when, after reading The Ecology of Commerce in 1994, carpet manufacturer Ray Anderson set out to clean up his petroleum-intensive operation and succeeded in cutting net carbon emissions by more than 80 percent.

Dubbed “America’s Greenest CEO,” Anderson dedicated his twilight years to proving that businesses could turn a profit without “digging up the earth and converting it to pollution.”

In a tribute to their late father’s vision, Anderson’s daughters have turned an 18-mile stretch of rural Georgia highway named after Anderson into a living laboratory for clean energy innovation.

The Ray, as it’s known, aims to be “a zero carbon, zero deaths, zero waste, zero impact highway,” and it is deploying a slate of cutting-edge technologies to achieve these goals.

“We’re not putting solar panels on the side of the road and calling it green,” said Anderson’s daughter Harriet Langford, president of the Ray. “We’re fundamentally changing our assumptions and expectations of highway infrastructure.

Roads can be safe, sustainable and regenerative. We’re proving that, and the world is starting to notice.” Here are three technologies already installed along on the Ray.

1. Solar-paved roadway

Super slender, extra durable, skid-resistant solar panels supply power to the Visitor Information Center in West Point, GA. Source: The Ray

2. Solar-powered charging station

Solar panels provide energy for this charging station at the West Point Visitor Information Center. It can charge most electric vehicles 80 percent of the way in less than 45 minutes. Source: Kia Motors

3. Roll-over tire pressure monitor

A plate at the West Point Visitor Information Center gauges the pressure and tread depth of each tire. A kiosk delivers a printout with the measurement for each tire. Drivers can fill up their tires for free at a nearby pump, improving fuel efficiency. Source: The Ray

The Ray is also looking to install a number of innovations that are still in their infancy.

“New technologies are coming to market that can make our highways the safest driving routes in the world, while at the same time making them useful in generating clean, renewable energy,” Langford said.

Here are three innovations possibly headed for the Georgia highway.

1. EV charging lanes

The next generation of electric cars will able to charge wirelessly using an electromagnetic field to transmit energy, and engineers are looking to build highways with embedded wireless charging. Charging lanes would be a welcome, if costly, addition to the Ray. Source: The Ray

2. Solar barriers

Noise-canceling barriers would block the sound of cars while providing a place to embed solar panels. Source: The Ray

3. Solar-powered smart studs

Each stud would feature a small solar panel and a battery. It would charge during the day and light up at night, urging drivers to slow down when it’s raining, for example, or alleviating rush-hour traffic by marking the shoulder as an extra lane. Source: The Ray

Other existing or planned improvements include roadside wind turbines and solar panels; wheat farms that produce straw that can be turned into toilet paper and paper towels; and flower gardens that will serve as habitats for pollinators — birds, bees, bats, butterflies and other creatures that plants depend on to reproduce.

The Ray is also considering using drones to inspect damage to roads and bridges. And, it is looking to repave the highway using a mix of asphalt and recycled tires, which will cut down on noise and improve the durability of the road. These are innovations that, Langford said, “demonstrate my father’s philosophy of doing well by doing good.”

Anderson firmly believed the degradation of the environment would someday be considered a crime. But he realized that, for that to be the case, “there must be a clear, demonstrable alternative to the take-make-waste industrial system that so dominates our civilization.”

The Ray is a testament to his view that that alternative already exists, and that new technology can stave off environmental disaster.

“We have a choice to make during our brief, brief visit to this beautiful blue and green living planet: to hurt it or to help it,” Anderson said, “For you, it’s your call.”

Source: Nexus Media. Reproduced with permission.  

  • MaxG

    I think it would be better to implement wireless charging at traffic lights, or the first 10 car lengths or so, rather then on highways. But then, which council wants to pay for something like that?!

    • The Ray

      We agree that wireless charging of EVs makes total sense! Without range anxiety the major barrier to EV adoption is gone. We just visited a test track in Utah last week and experienced wireless charging first hand – we’re looking to bring it to the public on The Ray through public, private, philanthropic partnerships.

  • Mike Dill

    the solar transducer sound barriers should also include pressure transducers to create electricity from the noise.

  • My_Oath

    Please show one single solar-paved roadway that is actually generating useful, economic amounts of electricity. I won’t hold my breath. We have oodles of places to put solar panels that will do the job they are intended for, without reducing their generating capacity by down rating them so that they can (kind of) act like a road surface.

    • Nick Kemp

      Yep – the road always strikes me as a particularly silly place to put something that needs to see the sky

    • The Ray

      Thanks for you question about one of our demonstration projects highlighted in this article!This is the Wattway – our solar roadway. It’s a 50 square meter pilot located on an entrance ramp on I-85 in Georgia and the energy generated from it ties directly into the adjacent Georgia Visitor Information Center. Since it’s installation in December of 2016 it’s generated over 6.4 megawatt hours of energy. That’s clean, renewable energy that saves taxpayer dollars.

      We know that horizontal panels aren’t the ideal deployment of solar – that’s not the point. The point is that in a world where everything we manufacture multi-tasks, we keep building the same dumb road. We pave, it cracks and wears down, and we repave. Our goal is to totally reimagine our infrastructure system and demand more of our investments. What if our rural highways that sit and bake in the sun most of the day could be a reliable road AND produce energy? This surface armors the existing road and is actually more skid resistant. Seems like something worth trying! Which is why we did. We’re a living laboratory piloting the newest innovations that will make driving safer, more sustainable, and actually regenerative to the environment.

      • My_Oath

        You could have saved even more taxpayer dollars if you had put the panels on a roof – and used cheaper panels that didn’t have to be ruggardised for trafficability.

        “We know that horizontal panels aren’t the ideal deployment of solar – that’s not the point. ”

        Because screw physics amitrite?

        Come back and talk when you’ve run out rooftops and open space to deploy more efficient and cheaper panels.

        • The Ray

          I’m sorry you aren’t as excited about our project as we are! We aren’t a solar manufacturing company, and we aren’t a government entity with buildings to power. We’re a nonprofit pilot demonstration project that’s pushing the boundaries of what’s possible and trying new and innovative solutions that, among other things, leverage more value from existing assets. We’re a living lab looking for the next big thing. There’s already an exciting market for rooftop solar – there’s not much we can do for that booming industry. But, for the record, we totally agree with you that more rooftop solar is super important. Thanks for the spirited conversation My_Oath; we’ve enjoyed it and appreciate your passion for renewable energy!

          • My_Oath

            I live in a jurisdiction where a majority are apathetic and a powerful minority are anti renewables. Every solar road nonsensical story is a free goal for the climate change deniers.

            Want to push the boundaries of what is possible? Make solar panels with higher efficiencies.