Climate Action

California to generate energy from traffic jams

The California Energy Commission (CEC) has announced plans to attempt to utilise energy generated from standstill traffic.

  • 21 November 2016
  • William Brittlebank

The California Energy Commission (CEC) has announced plans to attempt to utilise energy generated from standstill traffic.

In a new pilot programme, the CEC has invested $2 million to study whether or not piezoelectric technology can be used to turn some of the most congested freeways in the country into a useful alternative energy resource.

Piezoelectric technology converts vibrations into electric pulses, and is already utilised on a small scale in objects such as electric guitars, sonar and microphones.

The plan is to utilise this concept on a larger scale on Los Angeles’ famously gridlocked freeways.

The study will show how small piezoelectric crystals, which generate energy when compressed, could produce electricity for the grid if installed under asphalt.

As the vehicles roll over highways embedded with these crystals, an electric current is created from the mechanical stress, which can then be harvested to energize the grid.

Scientists already know the technology works, but the state needs to figure out whether it can produce high enough returns without costing too much.

Vehicles on the freeways already generate huge amounts of mechanical energy, but much of it is lost to heat and friction.

Scientists have estimated that the energy generated from a 10-mile stretch of four-lane roadway could power the entire city of Burbank, which has a population of 105,000 people.

The long-term goal is to produce 50 per cent of California electricity with renewable energy by 2030. The state is currently on target to reach 25 per cent by the end of the year, according to the Energy Commission.

Mike Gravely, the CEC’s deputy division chief of energy research and development, said: “It’s not hard to see the opportunity in California…It’s an energy that’s created but is just currently lost in vibration.”

Paul Bunje, a scientist at a Los Angeles-based non-profit that funds technological developments and the former Founding Director of UCLA’s Center for Climate Change Solutions, said: "No longer is driving just the act of using energy. Maybe it's also part of the process of generating it.”

The $2 million California is using to test the new technology will come from a renewable investment fund created by the California Public Utilities Commission. Bidding will on 18 November, and the commission will award the contract in the spring.