China Moves to Solar Powered Roads

Every so often a news article appears exploring the potential of turning our roads into super energy highways, particularly when it comes to renewables. It’s not a new idea. Ever since the clean power revolution began, the roadside has been peculiarly attractive to research and development bods, including those involved with solar power.

Now China is looking to take solar powered roads to the next level. In recent years, the country has put itself forward as the world’s leader when it comes to all things renewable. There are others such as France and Holland who have already explored the possibilities of solar, but there’s a hint that China might be able to nail it. They have the resources and the infrastructure as well as the focus to turn their roads into power plants.

The first Chinese solar powered road has been installed in Jinan. It covers about 1 km and consists of three distinct layers. There’s a top layer of ‘clear’ concrete. Underneath that are the solar cells. And below these is a layer of insulation to reduce impact.

There are plenty of challenges when it comes to developing highways that produce electricity, however good an idea it may seem. The first is how you protect the solar cells from heavy traffic while still ensuring that they operate at maximum efficiency. The other is the cost of building what is essentially a long, narrow solar farm. The construction at Jinan has cost $459 per square metre. It may be some time before we see these kinds of roads being rolled out across the country. Cost is a big issue.

The first solar road in Normandy, France, came with a price tag of $5.2 million and only covered an area of 30,000 square feet. The cost of Amsterdam’s 70 metre solar bicycle path in 2014 was a staggering €3 million which had many experts shaking their heads. A crowd funded experiment with solar roads in America makes the cost even more eyewatering – estimates put construction at around $11.6 billion per square mile. While there’s the potential to bring the price down once the technology is developed, there are many who believe that solar roads are starting an unsustainable high water mark.

Another problem is the positioning of the solar panels making them less efficient than roof top arrays which are usually angled towards the sun. Then there’s the issue of traffic running over the panels all the time as well as problems with dirt, debris and even snow in some locations. How much maintenance would cost for a whole infrastructure of solar roads, at least at the moment, doesn’t bear thinking about.

Of course, solar roads remain an idea well worth exploring. At the right cost and the appropriate technology, they could provide intricate arteries of power production that can contribute to the national infrastructure. Unless the cost is bought down considerably, however, it remains an intriguing pipe dream.

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