Originally published on Gas2.
A section of Route 66 in Missouri will soon be covered in solar panels from Idaho startup, Solar Roadways. “It gets Missouri and MDOT prepared for 21st century innovations,” says Tom Blair, who heads the Road to Tomorrow initiative. “We expect them to be in place, I’m hoping, by the end of this year, maybe before snow flies.”
Combining road improvement with solar energy generation could be not only a boon for the Missouri but a model for other states as well. Blair says, “If [Solar Roadway’s] version of the future is realistic, if we can make that happen, then roadways can begin paying for themselves.”
Solar Roadways describes their tempered-glass roads as “a modular system of specially engineered solar panels that can be walked and driven upon. Our panels contain LED lights to create lines and signage without paint [and] contain heating elements to prevent snow and ice accumulation.”
The panels also contain microprocessors that make it possible for the panels communicate with each other and with a central control center. They can also communicate with the vehicles driving on them. Because the panels are modular, roads could easily be repaired without major disruptions of traffic.
Solar Roadways says it has already completed two contracts in partnership with the U.S. Department of Transportation. “Our goal is to modernize the infrastructure with modular, intelligent panels, while producing clean renewable energy for homes and businesses,” the company says on its website. “We’ll be able to charge electric vehicles with clean energy from the sun, first on our solar parking lots and when we have enough highway infrastructure, while driving.”
Solar Roadways is not the only company working on roads that are also solar panels. France is planning to pave 600 miles of roads with solar panels manufactured by Colas, which bills itself as the “World leader in the construction and maintenance of transport infrastructure.”
The Colas panels took 5 years to develop and consist of 7 millimeter thick strips glued to the road surface. The strips use a thin film of polycrystalline silicon to make electricity from sunlight. Colas says they have been tested extensively and can withstand the weight of a 6 axle truck. They are also said to be skid resistant.
Solar roads seem like a great idea. But real world engineering problems may get in the way. In winter, water can collect between the panels and freeze, damaging the connections between them. Traffic may scuff they so badly their ability to make electricity is greatly reduced. Frost heaves and other natural phenomena may cause them to break.
It’s an interesting idea, and one that deserves to be explored. Eliminating the need to plow roads in winter could certainly save cities and states huge amounts of money, more than offsetting the cost of solar roads. Is this an idea whose time has come? “We’ll see,” said the Zen master.
Reprinted with permission.