“…there is no national ‘highway system’ of modern, high-voltage, direct-current, low-loss transmission lines to move that infinitely renewable power from where it can be created to where it is needed…The parallel with the highways…is obvious.”
Ray C. Anderson
With the passage of the historic Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the United States (US) is facing a unique moment in time that will define the environmental, economic, and social health of our country for decades to come. The transportation sector is the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the US accounting for 27 percent. Our Nation must quickly transition to widespread use of electric vehicles (EV) powered by clean energy. To achieve this, the public and private sectors must work together to rapidly scale the charging infrastructure necessary to power EVs, and expand the electrical grid to meet the growing energy demand of electrified transportation in the passenger, medium-duty and heavy-duty classes.
As the private sector continues to invest hundreds of billions of dollars into electric, connected and autonomous technology, existing transportation infrastructure in the US must modernize to incorporate the electric infrastructure to power these vehicles as well as the communications infrastructure needed to support their connected and autonomous (CAV) functionality.
What is ROW Transmission?
ROW is a general term referring to land, property, or interest acquired for or devoted to a transportation facility. ROW is the entire width of land between the property lines on either side of a roadway or railroad.
Electric transmission lines, specifically high-voltage direct current (HVDC) cables can be buried in and along the transportation ROW to move a lot of energy over long distances.
Why Buried HVDC?
HVDC provides a number of benefits, including:
- Reduced Community Opposition: Since the public already owns ROW land, burying this infrastructure in the publicly-owned ROW means that people do not lose a portion of their private land for energy development, reducing community opposition to such projects.
The publicly-owned ROW is the ideal place to bury this infrastructure since it reduces potential land-use conflicts with private landowners
- Improved Resilience & Security: As we have witnessed in recent years, the impacts of climate change require engineered resiliency and hardening of our energy, transportation, and communications infrastructure. It is also critical for this equipment to be protected against attacks and other security threats that seek to cause long-term damage.
- Utilizes Existing ROW Infrastructure: Buried HVDC transmission lines have minimal impact on surrounding infrastructure. HVDC transmission lines do not erode surrounding pipes, disrupt nearby communication equipment, or negatively impact the functionality of health devices–such as pacemakers.
- Reduced Environmental Impacts: HVDC requires approximately ⅕ of the ROW space compared to traditional overhead AC. This method also removes the electrocution risk to birds and the collision risk for small aircraft.
- Reduced Energy Costs: According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), every dollar invested in national HVDC grid infrastructure generates one to two dollars of net benefit to Americans through lower energy costs.
Why It Matters
The highway ROW is a natural place to expand the grid. Unlike the existing energy grid, which remains segmented and decentralized, the highway ROW is an existing national network that connects communities across the country.
Siting transmission in the transportation ROW can provide a solution to address key transportation sector challenges:
- Fleet Electrification: Medium and heavy-duty electric vehicles—like commercial trucks —will require access to significant amounts of charging power in proximity to travel routes.
- Transportation Modernization: Connected and automated vehicles (CAV) need additional electrical and communication infrastructure to support their operations.
- Transportation Decarbonization: Clean energy must be made available to power transportation’s growing electricity needs.
- Grid Resilience: Burying new transmission lines will fortify the grid against increasingly frequent power outages linked to extreme weather events and sudden, unexpected changes in supply or demand.
- Revenue Streams: As the gas tax declines, states need new revenue streams. Activating the ROW for energy transmission can generate new revenue from land use fees.
Policy Guidance & Progress
In April 2021, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) issued guidance encouraging state DOTs to leverage alternative uses of highway ROW for “pressing public needs relating to climate change, equitable communications access, and energy reliability.” The guidance supports consistent utilization of the ROW for renewable energy, alternative fueling, electrical transmission and distribution, and broadband projects – otherwise known as Clean Energy and Connectivity Projects.
In January 2022, The US DOE launched the “Building a Better Grid” Initiative to catalyze the nationwide development of new and upgraded high-capacity electric transmission lines, as enabled by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA).
Current Work & Initiatives
- Worked with NGI Consulting and the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) to produce an analysis that examines the barriers and opportunities to bury HVDC transmission in the highway ROW. The following documents supplement topics introduced in the study report:
Read the full report here.
- Planning a Coalition to build support among state Departments of Transportation (DOTs), utilities, and governors for the co-location of buried fiber and transmission in highway and interstate ROW.
Info coming soon.
Education & Engagement
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Updated as of 1/3/23