solar-panels-noise barrier systems
Solar panels on highway as noise barrier systems (KOHLHAUER)

Energy firm Ko-Solar and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation recently unveiled the United States’ first pilot testing of the viability of using solar panels as highway noise barriers.

The project will be located along a half-mile stretch of the interstate 95 just outside of Boston and will produce 800 megawatts annually — enough to power 100 homes.

Solect, a community solar project developer, will own the site once it’s operational and power produced will be sold directly to the Transportation Department at a price below the basic utility. Government cost savings are estimated at $560,000 over 20 years.

Construction is set to begin in the spring of 2022, with expectations running high.

“If this is successful, it opens the door to many more sites. Most states have sound barriers,” said Mohammed Siddiqui, a Ko-Solar partner.

Thanks to a surge in vehicle infrastructure throughout the 20th century — such as the now infamous Eisenhower interstate system — the United States has no shortage of highway noise barrier space for such solar projects. A study from Michigan Technological University found that existing noise barriers could support 9 gigawatts of solar capacity, translating into more than 30 million photovoltaic panels.

The technology underpinning the pilot is quite simple, namely a metal grid that’s attached to the sides of noise barrier walls. Solar panels are then connected to the grid at an angle to hide them from nearby residents and to avoid distracting drivers or deflecting noise in unexpected ways.

The grid used for panel attachment will be carefully monitored for weathering impacts to make sure the project sustains the cold winters in Massachusetts. The state will also track sound barrier performance to ensure the panels aren’t in conflict with the original purpose of the infrastructure.

Ko-Solar first proposed the pilot project in 2015 but was delayed as Massachusetts restructured its state-wide clean energy incentive program — leaving the company’s financial estimates uncertain. The project resumed in 2018 with the Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target program (SMART) launch, which pays fixed rates for solar production.

The state Department of Energy Resources also provided Ko-Solar with a grant of $345,000 on the basis of supporting green growth and innovation.

While ground-breaking in the American context, similar projects have existed throughout the rest of the world — namely Germany, the Netherlands, Australia, and Switzerland — since the early 1990s. Assessments of these installations have found a symbiotic relationship between sound barriers and solar energy, though cost-effectiveness depends on a few factors, such as location, available subsidies, and electricity costs.

If Ko-Solar’s pilot is successful, it could open the floodgates to infrastructure-based solar innovation in the American energy market.

In turn, this could represent a practical and cost-effective way of transforming the United States’ contemporary infrastructure to meet the changing energy demands of the 21st century.

“This first step will allow us to look at [all sorts of future innovations],” said Don Pettey, Program Manager for Strategic Initiatives at the Transportation Department.

Edited for publication by Derick Lila, Managing Editor and Founder.

Brett Porter
Brett is a cleantech and climate communicator specializing in knowledge translation, public relations, and content and messaging strategy. He has a degree in Professional Communication from Toronto Metropolitan University with a minor in Canadian Government and Politics. On the side, he advises climate-friendly politicians. You can find brett at brettporter[dot]ca.

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