Solar powered roads - is this the future?

 

Think of the thousands upon thousands of miles of asphalt criss-crossing our countries. Couldn’t all that flat, possibly sun-collecting space be put to better use than simply laying there waiting for cars to drive over it? According to several conservation-minded entrepreneurs worldwide, the answer is a resounding “yes!” as they strive to turn roads, parking lots and bike paths into solar farms capable of meeting all of our energy needs.

Solar Roadways

One such visionary is Idaho-based, smart energy startup Solar Roadways, developers of solar panels that combine a solar cell, LED lighting for lines and signage, a heating element (to keep roads free of snow and ice) and tempered glass strong enough to support the weight of a semi-trailer truck. Founders Scott and Julie Brusaw, worried about our world’s reliance on fossil fuels, were inspired by the idea of transforming already-existing roadways into an energy-producing system that could charge electric cars and, eventually, produce enough clean energy to meet all of the US’s demands.  
solar roadway panel

Photo credit: Solar Roadways

 

In June, their panels were installed in the American state of Missouri and their stretch of the iconic Route 66 highway. Through a partnership between Solar Roadways and Missouri’s Department of Transportation, a small initial test of the solar panels is now taking place at the famous highway’s welcome center – first, on a pavement leading to the rest stop’s entrance, with plans to then expand onto the parking lot. Soon the Jeff Jones Town Square in Sandpoint, Idaho – the company’s hometown – will be replaced by their solar panels in an opportunity to showcase the company’s technology and as a test of its cost and durability before moving onto large-scale testing on roadways.

A Dutch solar bike path

In November 2014, SolaRoad’s solar-powered bike path connecting two Amsterdam suburbs opened and has since attracted over 150,000 users. Though the 70-meter-long path experienced a few technical glitches at the beginning – namely a broken panel after frost – it has since outperformed expectations by generating more than 3,000 kilowatt-hours of energy, enough to power a home for an entire year. 

 

Solar bike path in the Netherlands

Photo credit: SolaRoad Netherlands    

Capturing le soleil

The French government also plans to pave 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) of its roads with solar panels in the next five years, potentially supplying power to millions of people. The first test is currently in the works for a one kilometer stretch of road that will power public street lighting for a town of 5,000 inhabitants. The 7 mm thick photovoltaic cells to be used in the project are an innovation called Wattway, developed by French infrastructure company, Colas, and the French National Institute of Solar Energy. The Wattway pavement can be laid on existing asphalt. If the initial test proves successful, the proposed 1,000 kilometers of Wattway could theoretically supply power to about 3.1 million households or 10% of all French homes.
Solar road panels in France

Photo credit: Wattway by Colas

 

While the technology is promising, critics point out that projects such as these may not be economically feasible since there’s a hefty price tag for solar panels in comparison to traditional asphalt and concrete. But given the fact that world energy demand is expected to double by 2050, an exploration of more clean energy sources is something we can all feel sunny about.

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