Using Highways as a Power Source

Can gridlock on the nation’s highways offer environmental solutions for fighting climate change? Scientists in California are looking at a new form of energy development that literally uses the nation’s highways as a new power source.

The California Energy Commission is investing $2 million to study whether piezoelectric crystals can be used to produce electricity from the mechanical energy created by cars and trucks driving on roads. In other words, the tires spinning, stopping and skidding on the nation’s roads could literally be generating energy.

A Proven Technology

The technology is proven. It’s only a matter now of getting taxpayers or private industry to pay for it. Piezoelectric crystals create an electric current when compressed.  The generation system would include implanting small, round piezoelectric transducers beneath the pavement of roadways to capture energy produced by vibrations that vehicles generate as they move across surfaces. The energy could power the road sides and if harnessed well, can be fed directly into the power grid.

“You would embed them about 10 inches down,” California lawmaker Mike Gatto told the Pasadena Star News. Gatto has been working on developing this technology for California’s roads since 2011. “If you’ve ever stood in a parking garage at a mall you can feel all of that vibration. Well, these transducers would gather that energy and it would be collected at a central source.”

Driving as Generating Energy – Not Just Using It

“No longer is driving just the act of using energy. Maybe it’s also part of the process of generating it,” Paul Bunje, a scientist at a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that funds technological developments and the former founding director of UCLA’s Center for Climate Change Solutions, told the Associated Press.

This isn’t going to be easy at all. There are a number of problems that civil engineers and politicians need to consider, and tests on the concept have failed or stalled in Israel, Italy and Japan. Whether the technology can withstand the wear and tear of traffic is one of the biggest concerns.

The hope is that the use of clean energy produced by roads will help California reach its goal of producing 50 percent of California’s electricity with renewables by 2030. The state is on target to reach 25 percent by the end of the year, according to the energy commission.