Phillips: Get rid of grass, put solar panels on highway medians
PROVIDENCE – Rep. Robert Phillips, D-Woonsocket, was driving with his wife in East Providence when he got the idea of putting solar panels along the median and sides of interstate highways.
He saw workers from the Department of Transportation and the Department of Environmental Management mowing the grass that currently fills these parts of the highway.
“I thought, wow, they do a great job of that, but we must be spending a ton on it,” Phillips told The Call.
Phillips formed his idea into a bill that was introduced during a House Finance Committee hearing Tuesday evening. The bill calls for the creation of an advisory commission to explore adding solar panels to median strips on interstate highways, route 146, carports at state parking lots and “such other locations as the commission determines.”
“The commission shall seek placements which would provide and generate maximum returns on the investment as well as producing substantial amounts of energy,” the bill reads.
Rhode Island has about 70 miles of interstate, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
Phillips said the bill could potentially cut down on the costs of mowing existing median lawns and on the electricity costs of highway lighting,
while helping the transition to green energy. He added that the House Fiscal Advisory staff is still reviewing the how much money the bill could help save.
“That way, we’ll have a better idea of how much we can divert into other areas,” Phillips said, citing education as an example.
Phillips’s bill suggests using federal American Rescue Plan Act funds to support the project and implement the advisory commission’s recommendations, but he said during the hearing that there may be other grants available.
In a crowded field of nearly two dozen bills being heard on Tuesday, Phillips’s bill generated two pieces of written testimony, both in support.
Timothy Riker, a Pawtucket resident, shared four pages of photos and renderings that depict similarly unconventional solar panel placements from other cities.
“This is something that has already been constructed or considered in other cities around the world, which opens up to innovation and exciting possibilities,” Riker wrote.
Massachusetts began a similar “highway right-ofway” solar project in 2013. Contractors lease pre-approved state-owned properties for solar panels, and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation then purchases power from the developer at fixed rates for the duration of the lease, according to MassDOT.
As of 2020, the Massachusetts program has developed eight sites, which collectively generate enough energy to cover the average power consumption of 875 homes, according to MassDOT. The program also saves MassDOT about $600,000 annually, according to their website.
Riker’s testimony goes beyond highway medians and envisions solar panel-covered bikeways and pedestrian walkways. A handful of such projects exist, including one in South Korea and another in the Netherlands.
In South Korea, bikers can ride underneath solar panels along a 20-mile “bike highway,” which is flanked by three lanes of traffic on either side.
In the Netherlands, bikers ride on top of the solar panels, which are covered with sheets of tempered glass that’s treated to be sturdy, skid-resistant and reduce glare.
Joseph Walsh Jr., business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local Union 99, also wrote in support of Phillips’s bill.
“If we are serious about meeting our renewable energy goals, we best get going,” Walsh wrote. “Exploring ideas that site solar arrays in unconventional areas is one way to get closer to our goals.”
In his introduction on Tuesday, Phillips suggested the advisory commission would not need to limit itself to solar, either. He said others have suggested adding small wind turbines along highways as well.
“This is only the beginning,” Phillips told The Call. “If we’re successful with doing this on the median strips… what else can we do to save money and go green?”