Renewable energy sources are often located in rural areas far from the urban centers that call for the highest demand for energy. The power grids in existence today were designed to link customers to relatively nearby coal, gas and nuclear powerplants. In order to benefit from the environmental, economic and national security advantages of renewable
energy, the U.S. needs to find affordable and efficient means to transmit the renewable energy from these remote areas to where it is needed most.
With private property easements both scarce and expensive, the use of existing freeway right-of-way offers a very attractive option for transmitting renewable energy, as well as serving as a suitable location for the installation of renewable generating facilities on structures, roadside slopes, along fence lines and even within the pavement itself.
The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials' (AASHTO) policy, although advisory, still officially prohibits longitudinal utility installations along freeways, except in rare cases and for fiber optics. AASHTO is becoming receptive to the idea. Though policy change takes time, there are good reasons to hurry.
State transportation departments, either by their own accord or in reaction to public demand, are beginning to look at the use of freeway right-of-way to transmit wind and solar energy. But while AASHTO carries out its analysis, most states continue to follow the official AASHTO policy.
There are precedents for allowing longitudinal installations along rights-of-way. Until 1988 the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) prohibited longitudinal installations on freeways.
Utilities have been allowed to use highway right-of-way—but not freeway (expressways with fully controlled access) right-of-way—for power, communications, gas, water and other installations almost since the beginning of the federal and state highway programs.
What FHWA Allows
A key section of the Code of Federal Regulations contains the FHWA's finding that it is in the public interest to accommodate utility facilities on the right-of-way of federal-aid highway projects provided certain public safety conditions are met. Another section as well as policies in the FHWA's program guide on utilities and highways allow states to decide if they want to permit longitudinal utility installations, including overhead transmission lines, on freeways. FHWA policy further allows the states to charge fees for utility use and to use the revenues as they see fit, including for transportation.