Solar fence stops snow and generates electricity

a fence next to a snow drift
The Minnesota Department of Transportation is testing a solar snow fence near Moorhead. The dual purpose fence prevents snow from drifting onto a nearby highway while generating electricity from solar panels.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

About the only place to find snow in the Red River Valley this winter is near an obstruction where the incessant winds leave drifts. This part of the state can see 500 hours of windblown snow each winter.

Snow fences play a key role in keeping the blowing snow from clogging highways.

You might have seen snow fences along Interstate 94, or state highways in western Minnesota. Some are simply rows of corn left in a field. Others are structures made of composite materials.

They all have one job: Break the wind so drifting snow piles up before it reaches the highway.

North Dakota State University associate professor Mijia Yang walks through ankle-deep snow to get to a snow fence stretching about a third of a mile along U.S. Highway 10 east of Moorhead.

“This is our solar snow fence,” said Yang, who is leading a research project in cooperation with the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

a man standing next to a fence
The Minnesota Department of Transportation is testing a solar snow fence near Moorhead. North Dakota State University Associate Professor Mijia Yang is leading the research project.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

This 100-foot section of fence is dual purpose. Instead of brown rails made of flexible composite material designed to stop snow, this fence is made of 6-inch-wide solar panels with spaces in between to look and act like a fence.

It’s the first of its kind in the U.S., according to Yang.

The drift on the leeward side of this section of solar fence is a few feet deep.

“The function of a snow fence is to keep the snow right here. Right here we keep it close to the fence, very effective,” said Yang.

Not only does the solar fence do a good job of stopping snow, it’s producing a significant amount of electricity each day.

“From our measurements, we have about 20 to 30 kilowatts,” said Yang. “So that roughly can supply one household usage.”

The average electric consumption for a residential home is about 30 kilowatt-hours (kWh) per day according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

That finding surprised Dan Gullickson, blowing snow control supervisor with the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

“They’re producing enough energy with this 100-foot section to meet the home energy needs for a typical household,” he said. “And that was pretty eye opening. If you did this across a mile that would be 50 homes.”

solar panels in a farm field
This fence is designed to catch snow blowing across open fields before it reaches a nearby highway. The solar panels also generate electricity.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

MnDOT currently has about 36 miles of composite snow fence installed across the state, part of a network of 177 miles of various types of windbreaks designed to keep snow from blocking highways.

The idea for this dual purpose snow fence came from MnDOT. NDSU researchers provided the expertise to take it from concept to pilot project.

While this section of fence could theoretically power one home, the energy generated here stays on site.

The electricity is melting snow right next to the fence using heated pads on the ground. That could help manage snow drifts that reach 10 feet high during a snowy winter.

“We could help melt the snow and thus reduce that snow drift and improve our snow storage capacity over the course of the winter,” explained Gullickson.

puddles of water on black plastic mats
Snow melting pads on the ground are heated by electricity generated by the solar fence.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

NDSU researchers believe this concept is economically viable. The final cost will depend on design and other factors, but an economic analysis found a solar fence could pay for itself in as little as four years.

This research project will wrap up in June and MnDOT will then consider the future potential for the technology. There are still many questions to answer.

Key among them is how do you use the energy?

NDSU researchers are looking at ideas that include powering roadside rest areas or electric vehicle charging stations. They are also surveying utilities about the potential to connect solar snow fences to the grid.

“Maybe it’s not MnDOT that owns it,” said Gullickson “Could it be a favorable investment for people outside of MnDOT to invest in this technology and infrastructure?”

a brown fence next to white snow
A typical composite material snow fence along U.S. Highway 10 east of Moorhead. Researchers think these fences can be modified to generate solar power.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Researchers also need to ensure the solar fence is safe if a vehicle veers off the road and hits it.

It will likely take a few years to answer those questions.

Gullickson said it’s too early in the process to say how this technology might be deployed in the future, but the early findings are very promising.

“You could have snow fences that are actually producing power, producing revenue,” he said. “That could be beneficial for the environment as well as helping improve the safety and mobility of the traveling public. So I think that the future is bright.”