The idea of turning our roads into solar powerhouses isn’t new. We reported back in 2014 about an American couple who had crowdfunded some $2 million to develop the idea. While it was treated with a certain amount of scepticism back then, the notion of using our streets and roads has gained traction in more recent times.
In truth, our road system is the perfect, readymade infrastructure for installing solar if you think about it. All we have to do is create panels that are sturdy enough to handle heavy traffic. That’s the big challenge and one which has taken a while to figure out.
Now, however, solar roads are coming the UK courtesy of French company Colas which is a subsidiary of engineering outfit Bouygues. Three sites have been chosen to ‘test-drive’ the new roadways, with Cambridge top of the list.
According to the company, the new ultra-thin solar panels are coated with a special resin that prevents cars slipping on them and protects the solar cells underneath. Just 12 feet of panelling could provide enough power for one home and the company believes that 30,000 metres can deliver the electricity for up to 5,000 properties, including businesses.
We may in the future find these new solar road panels used in areas such as carparks and cycle ways as well as main roads. If successful, road solar could potentially become more popular than solar farms and a lot more efficient. The tech, of course, is going to be quite expensive at first. Estimates are that it will cost up to £2,000 per square metre but this will certainly come down as the systems develop.
What is Wattway?
Developed by Colas, Wattway is the patented version of the solar road. It’s taken five years of hard research in association with the National Institute for Solar Energy in France. If it takes off, all places will be able to access clean, renewable energy at the roadside. This could have the potential to radically change how we look at solar energy provision. We may not need panels on our roofs or large solar farms but can have it supplied through our roads.
The hurdles Colas has had to overcome have included making a material that can take a large amount of impact, not only from traffic or footfall but also extreme weather. If successful and cost effective this would be a great solution for towns and cities as well as for off grid areas where the panels could be laid down and provide power to remote communities.
According to Highways Magazine recently:
“Each solar panel is comprised of an array of 15-cm wide cells making up a very thin film of polycrystalline silicon that transforms solar energy into electricity. These extremely fragile photovoltaic cells are coated in a multilayer substrate composed of resins and polymers, translucent enough to allow sunlight to pass through, and resistant enough to withstand even large vehicle traffic.”
Before you get too excited about seeing solar roads in the immediate future, there is still some way to go before the technology reaches the point where it is commercially viable. Much will depend on the trials going on in France and those being planned across 100 sites worldwide. Green advocates will be watching closely to see how much power these panels deliver to a local area. Crucial will be this quality of energy production but also the level of maintenance required to service and repair areas that are damaged.
Don’t be surprised, though, if you see workmen in future laying down solar panels rather than spreading tar across your local highway.