Volume XI | Issue 2 | Fall 2011
Today, solar panels are being built in the right-of-ways of Oregon highways. Photo: Gary Weber/ODOT

Driving on sunshine

In 1961, the big news was a bridge across a river; today, it’s electric cars and roadside solar panels

With gas around 31 cents a gallon, a growing nation, and the teenage cruise era hitting all cylinders, the 1960s marked the beginning of steadily increasing traffic on U.S. roadways. The trend has stayed in full gear, seldom slowing over the last 50 years.

Working to meet the need for speed and travel, the Oregon Department of Transportation opened the Willamette River Bridge to traffic in Eugene in 1961, completing an important link on Interstate 5. Nearly half a century later, safety concerns prompted the bridge’s demolition in 2009. ODOT expects the new Willamette River Bridge to be finished in 2013.

vehicles  filled with renewable energy

Years of ever-increasing traffic has taken its toll on Oregon roads, but the state’s highways are still considered top notch, ranking No. 10 last year in the Reason Foundation’s 19th annual national highway report. 

Filling up on sunshine

Today, with Oregon gas prices between $3 and $4 a gallon and the new release of hybrid and electric vehicles, the folks managing Oregon’s roads are poised again to meet the driving demand. The new wave of travel has ODOT envisioning a cruising public that stops at roadside stations to fill up on sunshine.

“I don’t think that’s very far down the road,” says Allison Hamilton, ODOT’s Oregon Solar Highway Program Manager. “What we envision is a world where vehicles are filled with renewable energy.”

That future is now, says Art James, ODOT’s project director for the Office of Innovative Partnerships. In June, a solar-powered car charging station opened in Portland. The free charging station is located on a Portland Development Commission-owned parking lot.

James says Oregon is involved in multiple projects to ready the state for the electric cars every manufacturer plans to release. So far, more than 400 electric vehicles cruise Oregon’s roads, and state lawmakers want to reach 25,000 by 2015, James says. To meet the growing demand, James says Oregon is involved in the EV (electric vehicle) Project, the West Coast Green Highway and the Tiger II Grant to build EV infrastructure. These projects will mean hundreds of charging stations and more than two dozen fast-charge stations, including eight between Eugene and Ashland. 

Solar dreams

“There is very strong interest in the Ashland-Medford area and a number of people have taken delivery of [electric vehicles] in Jackson and Josephine counties,” James says. 

Solar dreams are several years old already. In December 2008, ODOT’s first venture into solar generation began at the interchange of Interstates 5 and 205 outside Portland and was the first in the nation. 

Hamilton says roadside solar plants add value to the 19,000 lane miles of dormant right-of-way that ODOT manages. “We’re mowing the lawns and picking up litter and trying to keep down noxious weeds, but we could be using [those areas] to generate electricity,” Hamilton says.

Built and managed by Portland General Electric, the utility dubbed the array SunWay 1. PGE owns electricity generated by SunWay 1 and sells it back to ODOT. 

The solar electricity replaces about one-third of the energy used at the interchange to power ODOT’s signals, buildings, ramp metering and illumination each year.

Another solar highway project broke ground in the Willamette Valley in August. ODOT is studying other areas of Oregon for potential solar projects.

Hamilton says the solar station has outperformed original expectations of 112,000-kilowatt hours per year. Today, SunWay 1 pumps out 128,000-kilowatt hours annually.

“It’s been performing beautifully and autonomously,” she says. “We haven’t even had to dust them yet.” 

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