Groundbreaking: Solar panel roadways

The United States has over 72,000 square kilometers (about 45,000 miles) of asphalt and concrete surfaces that are exposed to the sun. Imagine if we could harness that solar energy, convert it to electricity, and use it to power the planet. That’s where solar panels and pavement collide.

Imagine a roadway that could store power lines and energy, project LED light displays, and fuel the grid and our electric cars. Thanks to some innovative engineers, such ideas have started to become a reality, and it looks like the futuristic technology we’ve been waiting for in the 21st century.

There are currently a few different types of solar-panel roadways and highways in the works. Projects to integrate solar panels into roadway designs are happening among some of the most solar-energy conscious countries today, including the Netherlands, United States, China, and France.

Solar roadways

In the United States, engineering couple Scott and Julie Brusaw stared the Solar Roadway project. They received a contract from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to build two prototypes of their technology, which are now complete.

Parking lot prototype of the Solar Roadway project. Photo from Wikipedia
Parking lot prototype of the Solar Roadway project.
Photo from Wikipedia

The couple claims that all roadways, parking lots, sidewalks, driveways, bike paths, and outdoor recreation services could be equipped with their solar panel technology. Their solar-powered design is made up of “smart, microprocessing, interlocking, hexagonal units” that can be replaced a panel at a time if damaged or malfunctioning. The solar panels are covered with a layer of tempered glass, designed and tested to meet all impact and traction requirements.

Dog crossing Solar Roadway prototype. Photo from Wikipedia
Dog crossing Solar Roadway prototype.
Photo from Wikipedia

Beyond the technology itself, there are ways that the Brusaws have envisioned solar roadways to solve multiple issues in transportation and infrastructure. For example, in colder regions, the surface temperature of the panels could be kept above freezing to melt snow and ice and keep roads safer.

Additionally, every panel would have a series of LED lights and pressure sensors that could have multiple applications. For example, if a tree fell in the road ahead of a driver, the panels could be programmed to display warnings to drivers approaching the area. LED lights could also be used to reconfigure roadway markings, instead of having to repaint them.

Lastly, solar roadways would be built with two channels underneath the solar panel surface. One channel could be used to house electric cables—like power lines, data lines, and internet cables—while the other channel could be used to collect rain water and snow melt that otherwise enters and pollutes our soil, lakes, rivers, and oceans.

Wattway

Normandy, France, holds the honor of the world’s first stretch of solar road. The 0.6 mile stretch was installed over two years ago, by Colas, one of the country’s leading road construction companies.

Prototype for France’s solar panel roadway in 2016. Photo from Wikipedia
Prototype for France’s solar panel roadway in 2016.
Photo from Wikipedia

In France, they envisioned things a little differently: laying solar panels on top of an existing road, rather than implementing the solar panels as a new road. This way, solar panels just need to be installed on the existing infrastructure, which cuts out some of the preliminary work.

The engineers behind the Wattway system collaborated with experts at the French National Institute of Solar Energy, weaving together their expertise with building roadways and the institute’s knowledge of solar technology. The interdisciplinary team addressed pages of questions that came with implementing this technology, including what types of materials to use, what grip to use, and what ratio of solar panel and road surface to use.

Like most solar roadway projects, the idea behind the Wattway system is that the electricity generated by the solar panels on the roadway can be fed back into the national energy supply and used to power our houses, infrastructure, and, eventually, our electric cars.

Solar highway

While the Solar Roadways project in the United States is still in the preliminary phases of implementation, there’s a solar-powered highway being built in Jinan, China, and the first section is officially up and running. Home to over 7 million people, Jinan is one of the most polluted cities in the world.

China’s solar highway (right) alongside regular highway. Photo from futurism.com
China’s solar highway (right) alongside regular highway.
Photo from futurism.com

According to Qilu Transportation Development Group Co., the builders of the roadway, the solar panels are able to generate the electricity to power the highway lights and over 800 homes. The engineers behind the project are hopeful that someday soon the roadway will also be capable of wirelessly charging electric cars travelling on the roadway.

Believe in tomorrow

Interested in more electric transportation projects? Then you might be interested in the 1 mile long eHighway in Carson, California, or the solar-powered bike path in the Netherlands called SolaRoad. Solar road projects are also being discussed in Australia, India, and Germany.

SolaRoad bike path in the Netherlands. Photo from Wikipedia
SolaRoad bike path in the Netherlands.
Photo from Wikipedia

These roadways all have a common purpose: to turn our passive roadways into green energy producers. There is limited space on Earth’s surface and we don’t want to use all of it generating electricity to power our busy lives. By installing solar panels along existing roadways, where the sun already shines and where infrastructure already exists, multiple problems can be addressed at once.

Remember, when a new idea surfaces that could change the world, you can have one of two perspectives. You can criticize why these ideas may never work, or you can contribute to the conversation, which in this case means building the technology that could save our planet.

Science and technology is accelerating at a speed we have never experienced in history, and we can use this rapid expanse of new technology to bring these ideas and prototypes to life, even if they aren’t perfect yet. What we know from progress in countries like France, China, and the Netherlands is that this technology is possible. It just takes people that believe in the technology—and a willingness to invest in research and development—to find the right solution. What idea will you get behind?

References

Related links

(Article/Video) A Twist in the Drive to Pave Roads With Solar Panels | National Geographic: news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/07/chasing-genius-solar-roadways/

(Video): Solar Roads: Can Streets Become Giant Solar Panels? | National Geographic: youtube.com/watch?v=YQba3ENhlKA

(Video) Solar FREAKIN’ Roadways!: youtube.com/watch?v=qlTA3rnpgzU

By Hannah Postlethwait, Go! Staff Writer