Solar Roadway

solar road by Kevin Hand

A solar roadway is a road surface, that generates electricity by solar photovoltaics. One current proposal is for panels including solar panels and LED signage, that can be driven on. Parking lots, driveways, and eventually highways are all targets for the panels. If the entire United States Interstate Highway system were surfaced with Solar Roadways panels, it would produce more than three times the amount of electricity currently used nationwide.

The United States Department of Transportation awarded Solar Roadways Incorporated a $100,000 research contract in 2009. This Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract enabled Solar Roadways to prototype Solar Road Panels. After successful completion of the Phase I SBIR contract, it was awarded it a follow-up $750,000 Phase II contract to take it to the next step: a solar parking lot. Constructed out of multiple 12′ x 12′ panels, this smart parking lot will also warm itself in cold weather to melt away snow and ice.

A layer of embedded LEDs will be used to create traffic warnings or crosswalks, and excess electricity could be used to charge electric vehicles or routed into the power grid. The electrical components will be embedded between layers of extremely durable, textured glass. The main advantage of the Solar Roadway concept is that it utilizes a renewable source of energy to produce electricity. It has the potential to reduce our dependence on conventional sources of energy such as coal, petroleum and other fossil fuels. Also, the life span of the solar panels is around 30-40 years, much greater than normal asphalt roads, which only last 7-12 years.

Another advantage of the Solar Roadway is that it does not require the development of unused and potentially environmentally sensitive lands. This is currently a very controversial issue with large photovoltaic installations in the Southwestern US and other places. But since the roads are already there, this is not an issue. Also, unlike large photovoltaic installations, new transmission corridors -across environmentally sensitive land- would not be required to bring power to consumers in urban areas. Transmission lines could simply be run along already established roadways. With induction plating embedded inside these roads, all electric cars can be recharged while in motion on top of these roads. This would reduce the costs and the time-inconvenience to wait at a charging station.

In spite of these advantages, initially, the start up and maintenance costs of building such roadways and parking lots may be extremely high. (However, advances in this technology will cause the costs to fall.) Another issue to deal with is the efficiency of solar panels. The average efficiency is currently 20%. Another disadvantage is that it can not be constructed in the poorest developing nations due to the high initial start-up costs. Road surfaces also accumulate rubber, salt, etc., which block sunlight. Salt might be easy to wash off, but not rubber. it would also be quite costly. Each panel costs about $7,000 to build, and the plan calls for billions of them to cover the roadways.

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