Science & Tech, World

Solar Roadways: Too Good to be True?

As we are slowly draining our last supplies of fossil fuels, there seems to be an outpouring of new and innovative concepts for exploiting renewable energy.

One of the sources of renewable energy that humankind could largely depend on in the future is the Sun. Technically the Sun produces way more energy than the entire planet could consume, however, the problem lies in constructing and providing the adequate technology to harvest this energy.

What Are Solar Roadways?

One of the new ways to accumulate and transform solar energy is using solar roadways. Essentially, they are photovoltaic solar cells, installed on top of the pavement on an already existing road. Their purpose is to collect solar energy due to sun exposure (when no vehicles are driving on top of them of course) and to convert it to electricity, which afterward could be used for different things.

This type of technology sounds exciting, so why haven’t we paved all of our roadways with it?

So far, there have been two major projects concerning solar roadways. The first solar road is called Wattway, made by the company Colas and installed in Normandy, France. It takes up one lane of a total of one kilometer. The total cost for this one kilometer was about five million euros, an insane amount and the main answer to the question ‘why aren’t we mass producing this already.’

Another producer is the American company Solar Roadways, whose product was primarily promoted by a seven-minute YouTube video called Solar Freaking Roadways, extensively explaining the multiple uses of the cells. As featured in the video, the solar roadway is not only meant to accumulate and convert solar energy but also incorporates LED lights intended to replace road signs and melts snow. The video has been widely criticized, mostly because the Solar Roadway at this point is more science fiction than a real option for solving the energy crisis.

Why All the Criticism?

The biggest setback of solar roadways is the fact that they are flat, and because of their position, they cannot absorb as much light as an angled rooftop collector can. Another factor that reduces their efficiency is traffic – vehicles driving on the roadway are blocking the sunlight from reaching the cells.

Colas’ Wattway was supported by France’s minister of ecology, Ségolène Royal. Royal announced that the goal of this project is to replace 1,000 kilometers worth of conventional asphalt roads with photovoltaic ones within five years. This ambitious task was reprimanded by the public because it’s an unreliable way to spend government money. The amount of electricity generated by this one kilometer cannot financially justify the five million spent for its construction. Even the location for this project was wrong from the beginning – Normandy is not a very sunny place, and the village in question has about 40 sunny days per year.

USA’s Solar Roadways managed to get a government funding from the Department of Transportation, as well as around two million dollars from an Indiegogo campaign. It’s disappointing to say that the co-founders of the company have been advertising a product that they only envisioned, and not developed. Solar roadways sound nice on paper, but for now, it is technically unattainable. While the idea of a ‘multi-purpose road that pays for itself’ seems very attractive, the company is unable to test any of its essential qualities (durability, safety, performance). On top of that, they cannot provide some of the materials and equipment they need for its construction.

Future Progress and Potential

Solar roadways are excellent the way their inventors have envisioned them. The problem lies exactly there – they only envisioned them. They still have a long way to go before they can be used commercially to replace the good old asphalt.

Despite the general public’s opinion, these roadways aren’t a scam. They are a viable option. However, there are certain steps to be taken to earn the high esteem they initially went for.

  1. The most important aspect that needs to be determined is the solar roadway’s efficiency. This way, we could quickly calculate whether the amounts spent on their construction can be justified by the electricity they produce.
  2. Before we can even start raising funds for construction, we need to be sure that the development itself is possible. This means making sure that the necessary materials are available.
  3. Are the LED lights necessary? The company Solar Roadways talks about incorporating LED lights to replace all road signs, but how safe is this? Especially during the day, when they won’t even be that visible?
  4. Are they safe to drive on? How much traffic can they endure? How does the change of surface – from asphalt to glass – affect traction? Answers to questions like this have to be explained sufficiently before mass-production.

Wattway and Solar Roadways have received an incredible amount of public disapproval for being overly ambitious, but ambition is not bad at all. In fact, one must set a goal and then do a lot of hard work to achieve it. It seems that these two projects are still in the phase of ‘hard work needed,’ meaning that there is yet a lot of research to be done to make it all work. It seems best that, for now, we stick to Tesla’s solar roofs or just traditional rooftop solar panels.

About Martina Blazheska

Martina is a mechanical engineering student from Skopje, Macedonia. When she’s not drowning in homework, she likes to write articles. Her favorite things to write about are feminism, social justice, science, ecology and travel. Martina is fascinated with the influence of social media and hopes that her words can make a difference, no matter how big or small.

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