States can reimagine highway corridors as conduits for power and communications

By Megan Link 

Because state highways are one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions, some state DOTs are looking for ways to decarbonize within their existing highway systems. Expanding renewable energy and decarbonizing requires increased transmission to meet the new capacity. Although DOTs have space to carry power and other utilities along their highways (in what is called the right-of-way, or ROW), these opportunities remain underutilized due to the technical coordination and expertise needed to implement them. By electrifying state-owned highways, state DOTs and the energy sector can work together to reduce carbon emissions. 

Our recent webinar with Minnesota DOT and the Ray highlights the need for this increased transmission and its applications as Minnesota moves toward electrifying the ROW. The Ray is an organization dedicated to constructing highways that achieve net-zero status in terms of both emissions and fatalities. It employs innovative technologies to achieve these goals, such as integrating transmission and solar infrastructure within highway systems.  

Utilities like transmission and broadband lines often end up on other state-owned land, including agricultural areas and natural open space. Electrifying the ROW instead can help preserve land use, limiting the impact on environmental and culturally significant areas. The Ray promotes a “dig once” approach, which involves planning the utilities that should be installed within the highway system before construction begins. 

Minnesota legislation set a clean energy standard, requiring all electricity in the state to be 100% clean by 2040. Instead of acquiring new land for these efforts, MnDOT collaborated with the Ray to explore the feasibility of leveraging existing highway resources to help achieve this goal. Siting the transmission line was a main barrier in this process. Through collaborations with public utilities, MnDOT found common ground by focusing on a goal that both agencies center in their work: safety.  

To sustain these efforts, MnDOT is creating new resources and guidance, incorporating joint training, and emphasizing the need for early and consistent coordination across sectors and divisions to implement these strategies. DOTs, sister agencies, and other states can coordinate early and often to address each team’s needs while developing a long-term approach to decarbonization.  

Jessica Oh, from Minnesota DOT, highlights the state DOT’s role in advancing climate and community goals: 

We’re being called upon in transportation to understand our nation’s pressing needs and figure out how we can help to serve those. Using our precious right of way, which isn’t an infinite resource, is one way to understand that for energy, affordable housing, etc., our land can be leveraged for community good.”

Photo Credit: Jonathan Petersson via Pexels, unmodified. License.