This foundation wants to build net-zero highways

A once-unused part of a highway in the state of Georgia is providing power for more than 100 homes, via 2,600 solar panels on a five acre site. It is a sustainable highway project developed by The Ray, at the Ray C. Anderson Foundation. Allie Kelly, the Ray’s executive director, hopes someday to see solar fields like this one lining highways across the US.

The lower 48 states have over 52,000 acres of empty roadside land at interstate exits suitable for solar energy development, the Ray says. Placing solar panels at these exits could generate up to 36 tera-watt hours (TWh) a year –  enough to power 12 million passenger EVs, and worth an estimated $4 billion per year.

Ray C. Anderson Foundation photo

The Ray is working on an 18 mile section of the highway as a pilot project on reimagining the US highway system. “In 2018, 28% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions came from transportation – more than any other sector in the US economy. Fatalities on US interstates and highways in 2017 topped 37,000. Highways are one of the most environmentally damaging and dangerous infrastructure systems in the world. That’s why we’ve started a movement to build net-zero highways, starting with The Ray Highway – an 18-mile stretch of I-85.”

Federal policy “strongly encourages State DOTs to approach infrastructure planning with a wide lens, taking into account both immediate and future public needs that could be met by leveraging transportation rights of way (ROW),” says Laura Rogers, deputy director of The Ray. It’s working with more than two dozen states to look for solar sites. In the Plan G video, we see a visitor from Australia inspecting the Ray’s work on the highway.

With ESRI, The Ray has developed a free digital tool to help transportation departments create solar projects on medians, beside the shoulders, in the centres of on and off ramps. It finds the parcels of land where solar would work best, and planners can make a virtual mock-up to make sure the installation doesn’t block a view or sit too close to the road, says Grist. The tool can also translate a proposed solar project into whatever terms are needed, whether that’s homes powered, economic value, or carbon offsets. And it does this quickly.

The Ray’s highway reimagining project is one of four projects profiled in a  20-minute video, called Plan G, which was created by Matt Pearl from 11 Alive in Atlanta in 2019.

The Ray photo

The  late Ray C. Anderson became known as one of America’s greenest CEOs when he set out in the 1990s to make his Interface carpeting business sustainable. In the course of learning about the environment, Ray met Paul Hawken. In 2017, after Hawken published Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, the Ray C. Anderson Foundation looked for a way to localize his idea of solutions to climate change that already exist.

In 2019, an expert team of Georgia-based academics, climate scientists, and researchers, led by the Georgia Institute of Technology in partnership with Emory University, Georgia State University and the University of Georgia, looked at what Drawdown Georgia would look like.

They estimated that the state’s current carbon footprint of 125 megatons can be cut by about 35% in ten years – in five key sectors: electricity (17 megatons), buildings and materials (6 megatons), food and agriculture (5 megatons), land sinks like working forests and coastal wetlands ( 5 megatons), and transportation (9 megatons). In terms of impacts, they’ve mapped all the possibilities so they are pursuing progress “with eyes wide open.”

Never say that one person can’t make a difference. Ray C. Anderson did. He still does.


The Ray website.

The Ray C. Anderson Foundation website.

That empty space next to highways? Put solar panels on it. Grist, Dec. 7, 2022

The Ray and NGI release their NextGen Highways Feasibility Study for the Minnesota Department of Transportation. The Ray press release, Apr. 12, 2022

The visionary businessman who makes climate-neutral carpeting….Hopebuilding, Oct. 12, 2021.