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Study Underway to Harness Renewable Energy from Minnesota’s Highways

By Micaela Resh, Office of Research & Innovation

Sound barriers and snow fences along highways have the potential to provide clean energy in Minnesota.

A newly funded MnDOT study, Harnessing Solar Energy through Noise Barriers and Structural Snow Fencing, is investigating how to utilize existing noise barriers and snow fences on Minnesota highways to harvest clean, cost-effective energy.

“Snow fences and noise walls are structural barriers with a singular purpose. Snow fences are intended to limit snow from drifting onto our highways and noise walls are intended to reduce noise to a comfortable level for communities living near our highways. Finding a way to integrate solar that maintains their structural integrity could transform the use of these barriers from single purpose to multi-purpose,” says Dan Gullickson, MnDOT’s Blowing Snow Control Shared Services Program Supervisor, who is overseeing the research project.

Solar energy is energy captured from the sun and converted into thermal or electrical energy. It is a clean and abundant renewable energy source and generally requires very little maintenance after installation. Solar energy has a variety of uses, including providing electricity to power street lamps and homes, heating and cooling spaces, and heating water.

“We’ve seen some applications of solar panels on noise walls—primarily in European countries—but the addition of solar panels to snow fences is an entirely new concept,” says Gullickson.

The innovative nature of this project brings many unknowns that MnDOT hopes to answer, such as: Is it possible to engineer these structures without disrupting their functionality? What safety measures need to be taken to ensure the public and MnDOT workers stay safe if they come into contact with the panels? What are the lifecycle costs of installing and maintaining solar? How much energy could they generate and how does that connect with existing power grids?

One estimate shows that a thousand miles of solar panels could power all the street lights along Minnesota highways or 43,333 residential homes. (Assuming each solar panel is 330W and 1,000 panels could generate up to 330kW per mile.)

Harnessing solar energy on Minnesota highways: Solar energy can be used for heating, cooling, lighting, and warming water. 1,000 miles of solar panels on Minnesota highways could power: All of minnesota highway lights o 43,333 residential homes.

“We know Minnesota and North Dakota winters bring a lot of snow—which is disruptive to our travelers and farmers. We hope to create a sustainable solution that aids drivers and farmers, but also harnessing energy which would be able to offset the cost of construction and installation,” says Mijia Yang from North Dakota State University, the lead researcher.

Gullickson and a diverse team of MnDOT experts – from the field of environmental stewardship to traffic engineering – will guide the research and review findings.

The study will include surveys, lab testing or modeling of possible design options and a cost-benefit analysis—planned to be completed by of June 2021.

Currently, the research team is developing surveys to better understand public opinion on solar energy (including energy prices and solar panel infrastructure), power companies’ interest in purchasing solar energy generated through the right-of-way and legal considerations for harvesting solar energy through the rights-of-way.

 “Surveying the public and utility providers may uncover questions that we hadn’t previously anticipated. We hope to address those hurdles throughout the study,” says Gullickson. Follow along for project updates on MnDOT’s Office of Research & Innovation website.

New Office, Director to Foster ‘Culture of Innovation’

Katie Walker, Director of the Office of Research & Innovation

Katie Walker, formerly of Hennepin County, was recently named director of MnDOT’s new Office of Research & Innovation (formerly the Research Services & Library section), a role in which Walker will lean on her experience leading organizational change at Hennepin County.

During her 20-year tenure with Hennepin County, Walker held a variety of roles, including Southwest Light Rail Transit (LRT) Project Manager, Southwest LRT Community Works Program Director, and Public Works Policy and Planning Manager. Most recently, Walker headed strategic initiatives for the county’s Center of Innovation and Excellence, whose mission is to “create a culture where research, innovation and analysis bridges today with tomorrow to improve the quality of life for residents.”

“Fostering a culture of innovation at MnDOT will involve supporting creative thinking, new ideas and customer-focused solutions. We want to find ways to celebrate and share how staff are innovating on a daily basis – small changes that culminate to have an astounding impact. This not only supports our core values, but it equips us to better respond to a changing transportation environment,” said Walker, whose early career included stints as a planner for MnDOT, Dakota County and the Metropolitan Council.

Elevating Innovation throughout MnDOT

The Office of Research & Innovation – which formerly consisted of the MnDOT Library and research administration functions under the Office of Transportation System Management – was elevated to an office this year to better reflect the breadth of research occurring across the agency and play a stronger role in spurring innovation, both within and outside the state research program.

“There has been an emphasis on innovation at a federal level, both at the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). Reflecting this at the state level provides us the channel to better showcase the innovative work being done here at MnDOT,” said Jean Wallace, Assistant Division Director of Modal Planning & Program Management, who spearheaded a research strategic plan culminating in the organizational change.

The Office of Research & Innovation will remain a resource for MnDOT staff, as well as city and county engineers, kick-starting research and shepherding projects to completion. At any given time, program staff administer approximately 190 research projects, ranging from local initiatives to pooled fund projects with other states. Research program staff will also continue to work hand-in-hand with the MnDOT Library to provide fast, relevant, and cost-effective answers to the state’s transportation questions.

Strategic Plan Recommendations

MnDOT Research Program Strategic Plan

Other strategies recommended by the agency’s five-year Research Program Strategic Plan are also being implemented to improve how MnDOT conducts research and research implementation activities.

One recent outcome: Expanding the membership and responsibilities of the state research program’s steering committee, previously known as the Transportation Research and Innovation Group (TRIG). Historically charged with allocating state and federal transportation research funds, the steering committee will also now track and report on outcomes of research conducted across the agency, not just the projects it funds.  

Another change: MnDOT staff will be able to apply for research implementation funds any time throughout the year—instead of through an annual solicitation—to advance a new technology or practice in their work area, projects that are usually based on the findings of past research. This change aims to increase successful adoption of research findings within the department.