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In rural Georgia, tomorrow’s smart, sustainable, solar highway is being built today

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The Ray, a 16-mile test run for the roadway of the future, is off to a great start

A rest stop at The Ray, an experimental new highway being developed in southeast Georgia

Memorial roadways offer respectful tributes to famous citizens and civic leaders. But on a 16-mile stretch of Interstate 85 in southwestern Georgia, renamed the Ray C. Anderson Memorial Highway, the asphalt isn’t just a reminder. It’s a living laboratory helping advance the ideas of an industrial and environmental pioneer.

This out-of-the-way section of interstate, now known as The Ray, offers a vision of how highways could look and function in the future. Drivers crossing the border from Alabama will see photovoltaic arrays rising above a rest stop, part of a sustainable electric vehicle charging station. Solar paving material underfoot, developed by a French company called Colas, has turned a small section of the visitor’s center into a testing ground for solar roadway technology. In the next few years, the addition of solar panels, sustainable landscaping, and Internet of Things technology will make this a smart, sustainableand most important to its backers, revenue-generatingroad to a greener future.

Rendering of what the proposed solar array would look like built into the Ray
The Ray

Highways have never been the sexiest infrastructure projects, but Allie Kelly, the executive director of The Ray, believes that preconception will shift dramatically over the next few years due to rapid technological shifts. With politicians in Washington discussing the administration’s ambitious infrastructure plans, now is the time to make investments in our transportation system. As far as Kelly is concerned, that vision should focus on achieving zero deaths, zero carbon, and zero waste. She hopes The Ray can serve as the laboratory where new ideas and revenue models are tried, tested, and proven possible.

“We’re at a tipping point in transportation,” says Kelly. “In five to ten years, we won’t remember a time when we invested a dime in infrastructure spending for a road that only did one thing.”

The new Wattway installation on the Ray, a solar generating paving surface that will help generate power along the roadway
The Ray

The Ray’s origins come from a simple observation that a memorial roadway should make its namesake proud. In the case of a highway named after the late Ray Anderson, that means both smart and sustainable. A pioneering green industrialist from Georgia, Anderson is most famous for the way he built Interface, a massive multinational carpeting manufacturer that has been an industry leader in cutting pollution and reducing the use of petroleum. The company is more than halfway towards its Mission Zero goal to reduce any negative environmental impact by 2020, and Ralph Nader, not exactly a friend of corporate America, has championed Anderson’s commitment to the environment.

After a portion of I-85 was named for Anderson posthumously in 2014, his family members, who were in the process of figuring out the best way to utilize the endowment of the Ray C. Anderson Foundation, felt it wasn’t the best way to honor his legacy.

“We put the name of one of the century’s greenest industrialists on a dirty highway,” says Harriet Anderson Langford, his daughter and president of The Ray, which is funded in large part by the Ray C. Anderson Foundation. “It made us ask ourselves, ‘how can we transform the transportation system?’”

The family and foundation decided the best solution was creating a living legacy project. To start, a partnership between the Ray C. Anderson Foundation, Interface, the Georgia Conservancy, and Georgia Tech’s School of Architecture conducted a roadway study to determine the state of local highways, and what could be done to transform an industrial transportation corridor that runs between warehouses and plants for companies such as Walmart and Kia.

The proposed electric charging lane on The Ray
The Ray

The telling results suggested highways have a long way to go to meet Anderson’s strict standards. The financial and environmental tolls of our road system can be staggering. Each year, $277 billion is lost in this country due to vehicle crashes, and roadways damage natural habitats on 15 percent of the country’s land. On just this 16-mile stretch of road, more than 5 million tons of CO2 is emitted every year.

Initially, the vision for The Ray was to add a solar installation in the median, along with a wildflower garden, to remind drivers about the environmental costs of the transportation system. But the results of the study suggested a more dramatic plan was needed. Since then, The Ray, in concert with the Georgia Department of Transportation, has slowly rolled out a number of new initiatives to improve both safety and sustainability. In 2015, a new electric charging station powered in part by photovoltaic panels, a joint project with funding from Kia Motors, became the first in the state.

This past year, the Ray added a strip of Wattway solar panels to an entrance ramp, and installed a WheelWright tire pressure sensor at a rest stop right next to the Alabama state line. The new British device helps drivers quickly test and maintain proper tire pressure, a leading cause of crashes.

Over the next year, the foundation plans to add more new tests that will help build out a more holistic roadway. A one megawatt solar installation will be installed in a right-of-way as part of a joint effort with Georgia Power to turn the highway into a place for power generation, and a series of bioswales—landscaped drainage ditches that naturally filter pollution—will turn the areas adjacent to the highway into more clean, sustainable, and natural landscapes.

“We’re pushing the idea that these kind of installations can become widespread energy generation system for state departments of transportation,” says Kelly. “Highways can eventually make money, and even serve as a power grid for the future.”

Kelly doesn’t just see the Ray’s role as a testing ground for exciting new technologies. It’s a proving ground for smart investment, one of many that have sprung up across the country and around the world to rethink how highways can be more than just roads. The team behind the Solar Roadways system has a handful of pilots operating across the country, California is looking to test a kinetic highway power system that generates energy from vehicle movement, and many municipalities are trying out different variations on electric and smart road solutions.

“We have to prove there are benefits here to the investor,” says Kelly. “Our role is to catalyze change, so to do that, you need to focus on everything. We don’t have to just talk about low or zero emissions, we can talk about revenue. Why miss an opportunity to leverage more for your investment dollar?”