In 2015 the commissioner of the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) created a “Road to Tomorrow” team and challenged them to develop public-private partnerships to look at new and innovative ways to fund Missouri’s transportation infrastructure.
“We received more than 300 ideas from people for three to four months,” said Laurel McKean, MoDOT assistant district engineer.
After going through every idea that was sent to the team, they decided on a solar energy suggestion. MoDOT then partnered with Solar Roadways of Sandpoint, Idaho, to start a pilot project with solar energy.
“In late September, visitors to the Historic Route 66 Welcome Center at Conway, Mo., on Interstate 44 will see the installation of solar panels,” said McKean.
Solar Roadways will help install and test the company’s solar panels on a 12-foot-by-20 foot area of the main sidewalk at the westbound welcome center.
“The Conway rest area had all the right characteristics when we were looking for a place to do this pilot project,” said McKean.
The pilot project will allow MoDOT to test how the hexagon-shaped panels fare in Missouri’s weather, and to see how effective the panels will be at melting snow and ice during the winter months.
“Part of what is so exciting is that the solar panels have a heating element, so it will be nice to see if it can melt ice or snow,” said McKean.
The panels are made of tempered glass in a hexagon shape that weight approximately 75 pounds each.
“We will be installing somewhere between 40-45 panels with a total cost of the project being $102,000, which comes from federal funds marked for such research,” said McKean.
Officials will also be monitoring the amount of energy produced, and looking at how that can be used to help power the welcome center and offset operating costs.
“We will be able to tell how much power is used and how much power the panels take up,” said McKean.
McKean said MoDOT hopes that the panels can one day be used on highways.
The pilot test will end in December 2018, and by then McKean said they will be able to figure out if the panels can be installed on highways and what the cost will be as well as the benefits they would produce.
“If this becomes a possibility, we really want to look at the benefits versus the costs of the panels. Hopefully they can help cut down on costs the state spends on the highways,” said McKean.
If the project is successful, MoDOT will consider the potential of crowdfunding to expand the project into the parking lot, or onto the entrance ramps to the interstate, to test how the panels hold up under traffic.
“We hear that California is looking into testing some solar panels with a different company soon, but there hasn’t been anything in action,” said McKean. “This a really exciting project, to be able to take the spirit of Route 66 and combine it with innovations in transportation to carry that spirit into the future.
“We take pride in looking into the future and there will bumps in the road, but we are looking forward to being a part of this project.”
The pilot project can be followed on Facebook at www.facebook.com/Route66Solar or online at www.modot.org/road2tomorrow.