June 01, 2010

Phoenix – Let’s get on the Solar Highway!

by: Taz Loomans


As you know, we probably live in the sunniest place in the country.  This may become a frustrating thing in the coming months when we might be praying for an occasional cloudy day in July, but it’s what we have to deal with here in the Valley of the Sun.  Our constant companion, the sun, is actually a blessing if we consider that Phoenix is supposed to become a ‘solar city’ according to Mayor Phil Gordon’s Green Phoenix plan.

(Currently Phoenix has received a $25 Mil grant from federal stimulus funds for the Green Phoenix plan and will be using it to make buildings along the Green Rail Corridor more energy efficient.  To find out more about this grant and the programs resulting from it, check out my post about Energize Phoenix.)

Though Energize Phoenix is a great start to greening our city, there are other projects that could help Phoenix on it’s way to becoming carbon-neutral.  One is thinking out of the box with our solar program.  I’ve blogged before about solar possibilities for Phoenix by putting arrays on parking canopies and big-box stores and bringing solar gardens to our vacant lots.  I was happy to see that Mayor Gordon had suggested turning 1200 acres at the city’s landfill off of Arizona 85 in Buckeye into the State’s first solar power plant.  This is the kind of thinking that’s required to make Phoenix a solar city beyond encouraging individuals to add solar to their rooftops.

Another solar possibility for Phoenix is to put solar panels in the right-of-way of freeways.  Usually these pieces of land are unused besides being leftovers from the actual roadways.  Along with parking canopies and big-box rooftops, this is infrastructure that’s already here so why not use it to harvest solar energy?  Think this is too crazy of an idea?  It’s been done already!  The Europeans have done it on the autobahn in Germany and solar graces the highways of Switzerland, Spain and Austria as well.

But has it been done in the US where highways abound?  I’m happy to report – yes it has!  The first-ever solar highway is the Oregon Solar Highway Demonstration Project, pictured in this post.  This small installation which cost $1.3 Mil produces enough energy to power 10 homes for a year and the Oregon Department of Transportation uses it to power the lights on the I-5 and I-205 exchange.  The solar array is expected to cut the utility bill for this stretch of highway down by one third.  So far, Oregon’s solar highway project has been a great success and they are planning to do more projects.  Now Sacramento, CA is planning on using their stimulus funds to add solar to their highways as well.

And this brings me back to Phoenix.  We have lots of highways.  Some of the right-of-ways already have beautiful public art on them.  But many don’t and would be ripe for a solar power plant.  If rainy Oregon can reap the benefits of solar power plants on it’s highways, we, the sunniest state in the country, need to follow suit and do the same!

Photo Credit:  The Oregon Solar Highway Demonstration Project aerial view, photo from solarpowerrocks.com.

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9 Responses

  1. The house I stayed at in Rocky Point this weekend was ALL solar out of necessity – in fact there were 100’s of beautiful homes ALL solar (and genrator) becuase the electric sub station is nto built yet. The only thing they can’t run is a central AC unit, furnace is fine and everything else is good!

    • bloomingrock says:

      That’s cool Doreen. It’s amazing how resourceful people can be when they can’t rely on coal-fired power plants to provide them with the energy they need.

  2. It baffles me as to why we are so slow in bringing more solar power to Phoenix. However neighboring New Mexico seems to get it and is taking a aggressive approach and installing more panels across the state. Can the city require all new buildings to have solar panels installed on the roof in order to get permits to build?

  3. bloomingrock says:

    Tony, that is a brilliant idea. There is a Green Building Code in the works for Phoenix and it might have a solar requirement or at least a solar incentive for permitting…

  4. Steve Weiss says:

    The problem with solar is that this state thinks putting it near Gila Bend is a good idea. The solar field that is in the works is going to completely desecrate a huge swath of open desert. Desert is not just dead, it holds lots of life and ecosystems that are going to be majorly affected by flattening the ground and installing first a bed of gravel.

    Freeway medians, yes! Desert, no! How about restrictions on new housing development that required solar? Or at least push the idea of white painted roofs.

  5. Will Novak says:

    Sorry to comment on a somewhat old post (I just discovered your blog tonight, its terrific!) but I have long dreamt of solar highways too….

    One place Id be interested to see solar panels is along the ‘canyon’ of the SR 51. For a mile or two that highway dips down and there’s those high walls on either side. I can imagine supports for solar panels spanning the highways with lights for night driving hooked to the under side of the supports.

    Steve, part of the reason solar plants are built in rural areas is because plants like that aren’t usually done with traditional Photovoltaic panels. They’re a different type of solar that take up large amounts of space and don’t really work in an urban setting from my understanding. The upside is, they generate a lot more power than a traditional panel.

  6. Azam says:

    Great ideas. Why does the entire road need to be that way? They could stripe it or just make the shoulders with solar panels. What is the current energy payback on solar technology? Last I studied and calculated, the energy required to build the solar panels, would not be paid back during the life of the panel. Has this changed in the last 3 years?

    • Taz Loomans says:

      Hi Azam, I agree with you that solar technology has been slow in changing. I don’t think it’s actually improved much at all since its inception in the 1940s. I do know, however, that solar panels on individual rooftops don’t make sense because of their extremely slow pay back. But in big installations, like on solar highways and solar farms, they produce a lot more energy to the point of actually making a difference and diverting some of the energy generation from coal-based plants. So in those cases, they are worth it.

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