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Could the space above interstate highway rights-of-way provide solar energy?

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Highways take up an enormous amount of land area. States, including Massachusetts, will need an enormous amount of land if they’re going to rely on solar power for a sizable chunk of their power needs in the future.

Might there be an opportunity here?

Of course, if you’ve driven on the Pike lately you’ve probably noticed that Massachusetts, like several other states, already uses some areas around interchanges and along the sides of highways for solar power. Solar panels at highway interchanges could provide up to 1 percent of the nation’s electrical needs, according to one study.

But what about the space above the roadway itself?


Using that space for solar panels isn’t a new idea. “Solar canopies” have been studied in Europe, since in addition to generating power they could protect the roadway from rain, snow, and overheating, while also providing an additional noise buffer for surrounding communities.

A stretch of the Massachusetts Turnpike between the exits of Westfield and Lee. Imagine a solar canopy over sections of highway like this.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Building over highways raises its own concerns — structures would obviously have to be constructed in a way that doesn’t compromise safety, and wouldn’t be practical in some places.

But finding more creative ways to site solar panels is going to become increasingly necessary as communities balk at solar megaprojects that require clear-cutting trees, disturbing ecosystems, or intruding on farmland. For highways, the clear-cutting has already happened, and they’re not exactly scenic vistas that anyone is going to miss. (Aesthetics are subjective, but I’d call a highway covered with solar panels less of an eyesore than the highway itself.)

All of this assumes, of course, that solar remains a preferred climate solution. There are other ways to generate electricity without releasing carbon dioxide, some of which consume much less land and resources and don’t require the investment in new transmission lines that renewables often do.

But that’s a discussion for another day. Massachusetts will probably run out of places where large solar farms can be built without controversy before it runs out of demand for solar. The sides of highways are part of the solution — maybe above them should be, too.


Alan Wirzbicki is Globe deputy editor for editorials. He can be reached at alan.wirzbicki@globe.com.