Believe it or not, the energy that we use to light our homes and the roads that we use every day to travel to our destinations have something in common: fly ash.
Fly ash is an end product of the coal combustion cycle that ordinarily would end up in our landfills as waste, but in recent years we have discovered that it can be recycled and applied to transportation construction materials. By adding fly ash to our concrete mixtures, Minnesotans now have more durable roadways that cost less to build.
Congressional members are currently debating the inclusion of fly-ash language in the federal transportation reauthorization bill. If passed, the language will expand the use of fly ash in future transportation projects nationwide by keeping it affordable and readily available.
In Minnesota, fly ash has been used in projects that range from Trunk Highway 169 near Onamia to Highway 14 from Rochester to Mankato to the new 35W Bridge. It’s also found in the concrete in the new Twins ballpark, Target Field.
Our roads, bridges, airport runways and railway systems are now built with fly ash because it increases the strength of the concrete. When we think about the characteristics of traditional concrete, strong and sturdy immediately come to mind, but over time concrete infrastructure needs repair.
Fifty years ago when our current transportation network took off at high speeds, we did not have the technology to build infrastructure that could last a lifetime. As a result, states are now overwhelmed with the number of projects that require reconstruction, so much so that critical jobs such as the Hastings Bridge were bumped up for priority replacement.
Lifespan of roads, bridge doubled
A key piece of our high quality of life — especially in rural Minnesota — is our transportation system because it connects us to the people and places most important to us. Fly ash allows contractors to double the lifespan of roads and build bridges that will stand for 100 years. As we rebuild our exhausted transportation infrastructure, we have the opportunity to ensure that a bridge built today does not require replacement before 2050 and instead focus our attention on more necessary projects.
The longevity of using fly ash is just the tip of the iceberg. Despite a recovering economy, many Minnesotans still feel weighed down by gas and grocery prices. In addition, the cost of keeping up with Minnesota’s climate in the winter and summer months has put a burden on household budgets. Seventy percent of our energy in this state comes from coal power. This energy-production process is where we get the fly ash that is an additive in a high volume of concrete paving and other infrastructure projects around the state.
If utility companies cannot sell fly-ash product to contractors, they are forced to store it and pass along additional costs to customers. By integrating fly ash into transportation projects, utilities’ costs go down.
Leaders in the energy and construction industries strongly urge our policymakers to swiftly pass a federal transportation bill that includes the fly-ash language. After all, we have critical infrastructure needs, particularly after the devastation caused by flash flooding in the Arrowhead region of the state. Let’s make progress in the most common-sense way possible.
Mark Glaess is the general manager of the Minnesota Rural Electric Association.
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