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Alternative Uses of Highway Right-of-Way


The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) sponsored this research to learn more about the current state of the practice, challenges State Departments of Transportation (DOTs) have faced, and lessons learned in accommodating alternative energy technologies and alternative fuel facilities in highway right-of-way (ROW). Dissemination of the information in the report should better enable State DOTs and local public agencies to evaluate the feasibility of accommodating renewable energy technologies and alternative fuel facilities in the ROW and to identify effective practices for implementing such projects.

1.1 Background

In recent years, there has been significant growth globally in the capacity, generation, and consumption of energy derived from renewable sources. In the United States in 2009, renewable energy provided 413 billion kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity, or 10 percent of the Nation's total electricity consumed. This represents an approximately 8 percent increase from what was generated in 2008 and a roughly 14 percent increase from 2005. Renewable energy consumption relative to total energy produced has shown similar increases over the same time period.1

The growth in renewable energy production is due in part to an increasing understanding of the anthropogenic aspects of climate change. Few other sectors present as many opportunities to manage greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and the subsequent effects of climate change as renewable energy.2 While there is debate, some people view a prompt transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources as a critical component to a stable climate and sustainable society.3 Others see renewable energy production as a way to promote energy security, economic growth, and the viability of the nation's green energy industries. As a result, national and state policy initiatives to increase renewable energy production and reduce GHG emissions are emerging. For example, President Obama issued Executive Order 13514 to "establish an integrated strategy towards sustainability in the Federal Government and to make reduction of greenhouse gas emissions a priority for Federal agencies." Correspondingly, FHWA and its Sustainable Transport and Climate Change Team are undertaking a variety of activities to promote the incorporation of climate change considerations into transportation decision-making, including looking for ways to improve system and operational efficiencies, reduce the growth of vehicle miles traveled, transition to lower GHG-emitting fuels, and improve vehicle technologies.4

Traditionally, efforts to increase renewable energy production have focused on developing large, central-station renewable energy generators. Providing the renewable energy produced from such facilities to the grid often requires building new transmission and distribution power lines (or energy storage devices), which can entail expensive and lengthy processes. Aiming to increase renewable energy production in the near term, state and local transportation agencies recently have expressed a growing interest in installing decentralized renewable energy technologies on spaces not traditionally considered for electricity generation. Decentralized production, also called distributed generation, refers to electricity produced onsite or close to the load center and is interconnected to the utility distribution system. Decentralized renewable energy generation provides a near-term and feasible means to produce renewable energy on a broad scale without reliance on long-distance transmission lines.5 Producing power close to the load center also improves cost effectiveness and efficiency by minimizing transmission and distribution losses.

Internationally, many transportation agencies have demonstrated the viability of utilizing the highway ROW for decentralized renewable energy production. Following these leads, several DOTs in the U.S. are exploring similar prospects given that the ample lands they manage are in proximity to power loads and, in some cases, have already been disturbed or are no longer held for the environmental attributes. With over 8 million lane miles of public roadways under state DOT supervision,6 the properties that DOTs manage are presumably locations with the potential to generate significant amounts of renewable energy (e.g., via sun, wind, arable land, etc.). In addition, these areas could be important places from which alternative fuels might be distributed.

1.2 Methodology

This report is based on phone discussions with stakeholders representing highway ROW renewable energy and alternative fuel facility projects that are in varying stages of completion and that utilize or are pursuing a range of technologies (see Table 1).7 A March 2011 peer exchange among the interviewees and additional stakeholders enhanced the information collected during the phone discussions. Additional information was gathered from an extensive literature review, as well as documentation that stakeholders provided throughout the research process. The project team then synthesized the literature, supplemental documentation, and phone discussion and peer exchange notes to identify the challenges, lessons, and recommendations presented in this report.

Table 1: Case Study Initiatives Included in this Research
Initiative Case Study
Renewable Energy in the ROW Feasibility Research Colorado DOT
Ohio DOT
Texas DOT
Massachusetts DOT
Solar Energy Projects Oregon DOT's Solar Highway Projects
California's Proposed Highway 50 Solar Energy Projects
Carver, Massachusetts' Proposed Route 44 Solar Energy Project
Ohio DOT's Veterans' Glass City Skyway Bridge Solar Array Project
Wind Energy Projects Massachusetts DOT's Proposed Wind Energy Project along the Massachusetts Turnpike
Ohio DOT's Wind Turbine Project
Bioenergy Projects Utah DOT's and Utah State University's Freeways to Fuel Pilot Project
North Carolina DOT's Bioenergy Pilot Project
Electric Vehicle Charging Stations Florida Turnpike Enterprise

1.3 Report Contents

Section 2, Governance of Utilities in Highway ROW, provides an overview of the Federal and state regulations governing the use of highway ROW related to utilities.

Section 3, Renewable Energy Technologies in the ROW, provides an overview of the various renewable energy technologies and alternative fuel facilities that can be accommodated in highway ROW. Summaries of each of the initiatives listed in Table 1 above are included while detailed case studies for each are included in Appendix C.

Section 4, Observations and Findings, describes the key insights that interviewed stakeholders have come away with based on their experiences implementing highway renewable energy and alternative fuels projects. The section provides information on the issues that may arise and the topics that need to be considered when designing, developing, and implementing these projects.

Section 5, Conclusions and Recommendations, offers best practice ideas for how DOTs can work with other stakeholders to capitalize on the opportunities to develop sustainable energy resources that utilizing unused ROW land can present. The section also suggests next steps for how FHWA can help states remove existing obstacles, overcome barriers, and encourage successful outcomes.

The appendices provide information on the stakeholders interviewed, the questions used to guide interview discussions, detailed case studies, the questionnaire sent to FHWA's Division Offices, example leases, requests for proposals, and other resources the stakeholders provided. They also include an annotated literature review.


1 U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). August 2010. Electricity Net Generation from Renewable Energy by Energy Use Sector and Energy Source.

2 See TRB's Transportation Research Record, No. 2191, Energy and Global Climate Change 2010.

3 Pimentel, David, et al. September 1994. Renewable Energy: Economic and Environmental Issues. BioScience, Vol. 44, No. 8.

4 Two FHWA climate change-related publications of note are Impacts of Climate Change and Variability on Transportation Systems and Infrastructure: Gulf Coast Study, Phase I ( and Regional Climate Change Effects: Useful Information for Transportation Agencies (

5 Elkind (2009).

6 The FHWA and U.S. DOT/Volpe Center (2010) have estimated that the National Highway System encompasses approximately 5 million acres of land and nearly 550,000 lane miles.

7 A list of stakeholders that the project team interviewed is included in Appendix A. The calls followed the discussion guide included in Appendix B. The project team tailored the discussion guide to each stakeholder, as appropriate.

Updated: 9/1/2016
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