Renewable energy | Transportation | Ecotrope

How solar power could pay for Oregon's highways

Ecotrope | Aug. 24, 2011 2 a.m. | Updated: Feb. 19, 2013 1:35 p.m.

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An aerial view of Oregon Department of Transportation's solar highway demonstration project at the I-5, I-205 interchange. The agency teamed up with Portland General Electric to build a much bigger solar project along I-5 near Wilsonville. 

An aerial view of Oregon Department of Transportation's solar highway demonstration project at the I-5, I-205 interchange. The agency teamed up with Portland General Electric to build a much bigger solar project along I-5 near Wilsonville. 

Oregon will soon be home to the largest solar highway in the nation. A groundbreaking in Portland yesterday launched a $10 million solar project at Baldock Safety Rest Area on Interstate 5 near Wilsonville. By next year, a grassy meadow owned by the Oregon Department of Transportation will be filled with nearly 7,000 solar panels – enough to power about 165 homes a year.

Many players and renewable energy incentives came together to make this happen:

  • The Bank of America is financing the project with $1.75 million of help from the Energy Trust of Oregon and $250,000 from Portland General Electric’s Clean Wind program. The bank will also receive federal and state renewable energy tax credits (together worth around 80 percent of the project, The Oregonian reports)
  • Potland General Electric is building and operating the project and will have the option to buy it in six years.
  • Oregon Department of Transportation, the Energy Trust of Oregon and PGE will gain renewable energy credits for the project that will help them reach their state-mandated clean energy goals.

But Allison Hamilton, manager of ODOT’s Solar Highway Program, started it all. And she said this project not only shrinks the carbon footprint of her agency, but it also holds promise as a potential revenue source for ODOT in the future. ODOT charged a minimal license fee for the use of public land in this case because, she said, if the fee were any higher the financing wouldn’t have penciled out. But in the future, the agency will be looking to tap its highway lands for solar projects that will actually pay some bills:

“At this point solar energy is still expensive. What we all envision in the Department of Transportation is that as solar continues to decline in costs, developers will have more profit margin and be able to pay more money for these site license fees. That will be more valuable as a future revenue stream for the Department of Transportation. And that’s really important because as we move into electric cars we’re moving away from the gas tax and we need to find a way to operate and maintain the transportation system of the future.”

Hamilton is credited with bringing the solar highway idea to ODOT. Funny thing, she said, she got the idea while watching a program on OPB in 2007. She even remembers the name “Saved by the Sun.” She saw solar panels along the autobahn in Germany and got a glimpse of Oregon’s future. She took the idea to ODOT leadership, and it’s now coming to fruition on I-5.

Still, she says, it’s just the beginning of what’s possible.

“This is laying the groundwork for what could happen across the country. The amount of solar power you could generate is pretty significant. This was just a field of grass. It’s in the public right of way, so the state owns it already. It was part of the safety rest area that wasn’t being used.”

She also pointed out a key clean-energy connection: By generating lots of solar power, the highway system could actually help fuel electric cars while paying road maintenance costs.

“If we don’t develop renewable energy resources, we’ll be filling our electric car batteries with fossil fuels. This way we can fill our cars of future with energy of the future.”

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