The Ray: 18-mile stretch of road is a testbed for a “regenerative highway ecosystem” with solar road, solar-powered electric car charging, tire pressure sensors, farming the shoulders and right-of-way areas along the road with a perennial grain, planting pollinator gardens, and building bioswales to capture pollutants

By Derek Markham (@derekmarkham)  

The Ray solar road

© The Ray

What will the highways of the near future look like? This road project aims to create “a corridor that reconnects and restores us.”

One of the pioneers in corporate sustainability, Ray C. Anderson of Interface, not only led the change to a greener way of doing business during his lifetime, but his work also continues to inspire those looking to build a better world. He described his own environmental epiphany after reading Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce as a “spear in my heart, a life-changing moment,” when he realized he was “a plunderer” who no longer wanted to leave that legacy behind and who vowed to run his company “in a manner that takes from the earth only that which is naturally and rapidly renewable – not one fresh drop of oil – and to do no harm to the biosphere.”

Anderson passed on in 2011, but his legacy of green is still strong, and one of the small ways he was recognized was through the dedication of an 18-mile stretch of I-85 in Troup County, Georgia, in his honor. Although the irony of naming a stretch of interstate highway after Anderson doesn’t go unnoticed, this corridor, dubbed The Ray, is now a testbed and pilot project showcase for technologies and solutions that “will transform the transportation infrastructure of the future.”

Some of these are high-tech projects, such as a solar road and a solar-powered electric car charging station, but others are just plain commonsense, such as tire pressure sensors, farming the shoulders and right-of-way areas along the road with a perennial grain, planting pollinator gardens, and building bioswales to capture pollutants from roadway runoff and mitigate their effects on the local waterways.

The Ray bioswales© The Ray Bioswales

This is how Executive Director Allie Kelly describes the vision for The Ray:

One recent discovery that has come out of the research of The Ray is an innovative method of cutting down on road noise while also producing clean quiet renewable energy. The results of a study undertaken with UK innovation consultancy Innovia Technology found that noise barriers made with photovoltaic material (solar panels), which can convert sunlight into electricity, can be an effective way of stacking functionality. Conventional solar farms are optimized for solar gain, as they can present the panels at the best angle to the sun for maximum output, but they also have a large physical footprint, which can be an issue in crowded urban areas. Solar noise barriers, on the other hand, don’t take up a lot of horizontal area, but they are not likely to match the efficiency of conventional solar arrays. What they do have going for them is the fact that these noise-reducing barriers can do double duty.

As Harriet Langford, president and founder of The Ray, said, “By changing the decision on the front end about what kind of materials we use, we can unlock additional value. If you can mitigate noise pollution and produce renewable energy at the same time, why wouldn’t you?” The solar barriers project is still in its infancy, and The Ray will be host to prototypes of solar barriers in order to drill down to the most effective materials and construction method to use for them.

“In this research we found that selecting the right solar noise barrier technology for the right situation is critical. Important factors include the required noise reduction, road orientation, local insolation, and the local value of electricity. The aesthetics are also critical, and especially in urban settings, significant value is placed on a better looking barrier. Although bolting standard crystalline silicon panels onto a concrete barrier is cheap and functional, it is somewhat inelegant and wasteful of materials. Thin film solar technologies such as a-Si, CdTe, or perhaps in the future tunable bandgap perovskites integrate the solar panel into one elegant (and optionally transparent) noise-blocking pane of safety glass. With their cost declining and efficiency increasing, we may see more of these technologies on our highways in the future.” – Andy Milton, Innovia Technology

Learn more at The Ray.