Stimulus Spotlight: Oregon’s Solar Highway

3078005880_7eeb96b270.jpgThe first of Oregon's "solar highway" installations, which are receiving $2 million from the federal stimulus. (Photo: ODOT via Flickr)
Washington's normally frenetic pace slows down in August, when humid weather and the absence of Congress combine to give the capital some recharging time.

But this month also marks a half-year since the economic stimulus became law, giving Streetsblog Capitol Hill an opening to examine some of the innovative -- and potentially controversial -- transportation projects getting funded by the Obama administration's $787 billion recovery effort.

Our first stop is Oregon, a hotbed for environmentally friendly transport policy where the ODOT uses about 47 million kilowatt-hours (kWH) of electricity each year to run lights, signals, and other illuminated features. To start offsetting its power needs with clean energy, the agency has built the nation's first "solar highway" system, installing linear arrays of photovoltaic panels along roadside land.

"Our long-term goal is to offset 100 percent of our energy use with renewable resources," Allison Hamilton, project director at ODOT's office of innovative partnerships, said in an interview.

Hamilton's office estimates that filling that power need would require about 120 miles of roadside arrays, or less than 1 percent of state-owned land. The first "solar highway" project, in the Portland suburb of Tualatin, can be monitored on the Web and is expected to generate about 128,000 kWH a year.

That may not seem like much, given that the nation's largest solar array, at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, generates 30 million kWH annually. But ODOT is gearing up for a major expansion of its "solar highways," with a planned 3-megawatt installation -- more than 25 times the size of the Tualatin site -- slated to receive $2 million from the Obama administration's economic stimulus law.

The stimulus money for the "solar highway," however, comes from the Department of Energy's (DoE) pot, not the U.S. DOT's. Despite the project's use for transportation purposes, it cannot be considered a transport initiative.

"Both the DoE and DOT like the whole idea of the solar highway," Hamilton explained, "but the strings attached are making it difficult."

The 3-megawatt array, to be located in the town of West Linn, also has run into difficulties from some locals who question the environmental consequences of the panel installation as well as the effect on their property values.

Tax Fairness Oregon, a fiscal watchdog group, has urged ODOT to ensure that ultimate ownership of the solar panels shifts to the public, rather than the private developers who provide initial funding.

2964183317_c8d7cf9797.jpgWorkers installing a fence around the first "solar highway." (Photo: ODOT via Flickr)
Both ODOT and Portland General Electric (PGE), the utility company that partnered with the state on the first "solar highway," said that the financing model used for that Tualatin array was crucial to ensuring its cost-effectiveness.

The utility's share of the costs "actually brings our contributions at or below our market prices," allowing the solar power to cost as much as conventional, carbon-burning electricity, PGE distributed resources manager Mark Osborn said in an interview.

Although the "solar highway" was ineligible for U.S. DOT stimulus money, the project counts several influential fans on Capitol Hill.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), an outspoken advocate for green transport, leapt to its defense when Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) named the solar array one of his "top 10 porkiest" provisions in the stimulus. Oregon's two senators, Ron Wyden (D) and Jeff Merkley (D), added a $1 million earmark for the project to next year's DoE spending bill.

And during his Senate confirmation hearing, Federal Highway Administrator Victor Mendez said the project is we said the project epitomizes what "we need to be pursuing in transportation, to do exactly what may become a standard practice 20 years from now."

Exporting ODOT's idea to other states would require utilities that offer net metering, which allows the agency to feed the electric grid during the day and withdraw an equivalent amount of power at night. Net metering is now available in all but six states, according to the DoE, and could be expanded by Congress in its upcoming energy bill.

"The land that’s alongside highways, in so many cases, can’t be used for anything else -- it’s access-limited or being held for future highway expansion," Hamilton said.

If ODOT's efforts continue to take off, she added, locations that have energy-generation potential "would all have solar panels on them."