Revolutionizing transportation and sustainability

This month, in honor of Women's History Month, Groundswell is celebrating the accomplishments of women making a lasting impact in the field of sustainability. 

We decided to let the rubber hit the road by talking to Harriet Langford, the founder and president of The Ray and a trustee of the Ray C. Anderson Foundation. The Ray and the Ray C. Anderson foundation were both named after Langford's father, the founder of Interface Inc. who was recognized as the world's greenest C.E.O. due to his quest to prove that sustainability was not only the right thing to do but a smart business decision as well. 

Under Langford's leadership, The Ray has become an 18-mile proving ground for sustainable technology including a solar roadway, pollution trapping bioswales, a solar-powered vehicle charging station, and landscaping that saves money on maintenance costs while feeding pollinators like bees and butterflies. 

Groundswell: What do you consider your greatest accomplishment in your work with The Ray?

Langford: Well, number one, I think we've been extremely fortunate that we immediately began to work with our DOT (Department of Transportation). That's their highway, and so you look at federal highway and DOTs, and to me, being able to convince them that it is critically important that we look at sustainability and transportation [is huge]. They are listening to us. We formed a charter with the Federal Highway Administration and with our Georgia DOT, and that's something that just doesn't ever happen. So, I think we were first movers, knowing that we needed to have a large collaboration for any of this to work. ... Because of that setup, now it doesn't feel nearly as hard. A lot of other DOTs and other states are looking at what Georgia is doing, so I think we've accomplished exactly what we should have done and that's set up a great example of what a sustainable highway can look like, but include other DOTs that are trying to make a difference too.

Groundswell: Which projects are you most excited about?

Langford: We've just got a running list of great projects. If you've ever been to our visitor center Wattway — which was the solar panels that went over the existing road surface — they've been replaced with a newer version, so they should be able to compare its performance. How much better can these new panels perform? We like to compare as we go along. We're excited about that. 

We just finished a megawatt solar farm on the side of the highway. We're only the third state in the country to do this. We did work with Federal Highway Administration and our Georgia DOT. When building that megawatt of solar, we decided the right thing to do was to include pollinator-friendly plants as ground cover. This solar array should be available to any state. We all have quadrats on our interstate system where the solar panels could go, so it's been really exciting to see some other states start looking at what we're doing. 

We are being leaders. We want more people to join. If we can do it, you can do it. So, that to me is passing the baton to different states to concentrate on some low hanging fruit, as we call them, and looking just at pollinator gardens — something very special, that is a great opportunity to prove you don't have to mow the interstate grass all the time. It could actually incorporate pollinators, and we see great value there because it's less maintenance, and it helps our bees and butterflies. So, that's yet another great lesson that we can learn and share with other DOTs. You don't have to use that land and clear cut it, and just let it sit there. Think of innovative projects that could work, and so we were excited to get the one megawatt of solar complete and done, and we can check that box.

Groundswell: What other projects would you like to see get more attention?

Langford: We've done a right-of-way farming project on Kernza wheat, and that's something that you can look at Kernza and realize its value. It has these wonderful deep root systems, that pull in carbon into the ground. These roots systems are 10 to 12 feet, and Kernza comes back every year. We worked with the Land Institute to see if Kernza of wheat was even viable in Georgia, and we've proved that it can grow here. It's actually reproduced, so we're looking forward to expanding our Kernza project. That is at Exit 6. So, that was really exciting news.

We've also just completed a connected vehicle pilot project that we're working on right now, and that's involving Panasonic. ... They've been dealing with connected vehicles, and we're now getting to the point where we can demonstrate that roadside units can communicate back and forth. We're looking at saving lives right there. Connected vehicles are coming. We know autonomous vehicles are emerging, and so that's exciting. We're preparing our highway for autonomous vehicles, and that was by changing our roads striping to 3M's striping, which is very visible to autonomous vehicles and connected vehicles. So that's great for life safety. That's something we thought was necessary so that other autonomous cars can start running up and down our highway and testing. ... We're proud that that happened, and we want to see it grow. 

We've also just paved part of The Ray. We got 13 miles paved, but we also worked with our Federal Highway and Georgia's DOT to do a test site of crumb rubber. We had done one test site on the county road between exits 13 and 14. Now, we've moved on to the highway, and we have a mile of asphalt rubber. Why do we care about that? Well, we have been 300 million tires that are discarded into landfills, and they don't ever biodegrade or go anywhere. So, our idea was, why don't we demonstrate what could happen in other states, but it's just amazing. Taking tires and grinding them up and putting them [helps produce] a road that has a longer lifespan, and the water repels through and out [of the roadway], which is great. You don't have as much spray back. There are so many great advantages to this. We hope this takes off, and you start seeing more asphalt rubber being installed. That was something we were really proud of for this year.

Groundswell: Why do you think it is important for women to be involved in conversations about our environment?

Langford: I think women have the heart. I think there's passion there. I mean, if we can raise children, we can do a whole lot, and I think the empowerment of women is starting to become really important. 

In fact, my father Ray said that it is going to take everybody, and it's governments, females, males. It's something that to me, women have the passion and the heart, and I think that's pretty important. And you just don't see a lot of it, but I think that I think times are changing. I think that there are going to be more women coming to step up into corporate roles.