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  • Melissa Deaver

Solar Roadways

Solar innovation is always pushing the boundaries of technology. While most solar installations are on rooftops or plots of land, there are some companies that believe non-traditional implementations could be successful. One of those places is on our roadways.

What are Solar Roadways?

Most roads in the US are made out of asphalt. A solar roadway is a road that has solar panel technology integrated with its surface, which then produces electricity while being driven on. While this is a totally unique approach to solar solutions, there are some challenges with this technology.

The main company in the US who believes in this is called Solar Roadways. They've been raising money and conducting research into how this could be a feasible large-scale operation. They are still a long ways away from any kind of scalable technology, however, as there complications with altering highway infrastructure.

For a fun video outlining how this works and what they hope to accomplish, click here.

Is this Technology Feasible for Large-Scale Use?

For the sake of argument, let's say that all the technological and structural kinks had been worked out with Solar Roadways' designs. Could replacing our highways with this technology actually support our nationwide electricity use?

According to the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, there are about 18,000 square miles of land covered by roads in the US. If we look at the numbers from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in regards to the square footage of solar panels required for each individual, they state 1,948 square feet should do the trick. If we multiply that by 325 million people in the US, we're looking at 23,000 square miles. If we were to convert 100% of our roadways to solar roadways, it could theoretically support 80% of our electricity usage.

The Challenges of this Technology

There are four main challenges to making this idea a reality: cost, durability, safety and production.

One of the biggest challenges is the cost of these systems. Solar panels are obviously way more expensive than asphalt per square foot, and the repair costs outweigh fixing a pothole. One estimate puts the cost of total replacement at $56 trillion. If this were ever to become a reality, the costs would need to come down dramatically.

Asphalt is an ideal material for roads as it can handle the weight and wear and tear that cars and trucks deliver while flexing slightly under pressure to reduce cracking and other damage. Utilizing solar panels within the design presents a challenge of durability - it would be an engineering feat to come up with a material that can both let light in and also remain durable enough. Prototypes have yet to nail this dilemma.

Safety concerns stem from the material as well - as panels are made from glass, this causes a huge concern over safety. What is there is a rainstorm and the glass is wet? Or if there is an accident and broken glass is present - how quickly can we ensure repairs before someone is injured?

Finally, production is another concern. The calculations above assume perfect exposure at all times, which would not be the reality of the situation. Depending on location, there could be a huge swing in production, based on sunlight exposure, etc. Roads obviously have to be flat in order to drive on them, but this isn't optimal for catching the sun's rays. And if there is a snowstorm or other debris covering the road, this would also limit production.

China's Efforts

While efforts in the US are far from feasible, China may be closer to utilizing this technology to their advantage. There's a company called Pavenergy that opened its first solar highway in 2017. They received funding from the government and a Transportation firm to help with costs. In addition to the financial advantage, they have a huge leg up on us as most of their roads are made from concrete. Concrete roads are much better surfaces to accommodate the solar technology, as the weight of vehicles will not flex this material (as they would with asphalt), thus supporting the solar cells properly.

While a very exciting idea and technology in the solar world, solar roadways is still in the beginning phases of testing and production. We're excited to keep our eyes on this one to see how it advances in the coming years!

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