A trio of technology leaders in Europe — the Austrian Institute of Technology, Fraunhofer ISE in Germany, and Forster Industrietechnik in Switzerland — is working to develop a solar canopy system for highways in order to tap into the vast, under-utilized road network for clean electricity generation.
The PV-SÜD initiative is still at the concept stage, and then will move to implementing a pilot project on a real-life roadway.
The solar power infrastructure would need to be developed to handle things a bit differently from rooftop solar panels or even solar panel carports. For one, you wouldn’t want tens of thousands of dollars (or euros) of damage every time there’s an accident. So, the system would need to be developed in a way that it would be especially sturdy or resilient in the case of impact. It would also need special design to manage wind low as well as rain and snow in a way that is compatible with the needs of the roadway network. Naturally, traffic safety is another unique concern, and efficient maintenance would be important to making it cost competitive.
What’s the point? Well, there are also some inherent benefits to such a system. “In addition to the double use of space, the scientists expect other positive outcomes, including the protection of road surfaces from precipitation and overheating,” Sandra Enkhardt writes for PV Magazine. Such a system can also help reduce noise pollution.
In the end, whether or not this is a good idea comes down to whether the cost savings from the various benefits outweigh the extra costs compared to other projects the agencies overseeing roadway budgets could implement.
The concept is certainly appealing on the surface. We have an enormous amount of underutilized road space across the world. How much of our electricity needs could be satisfied simply by putting solar panels over those roads? As long as the designers create a system that provides satisfactory durability and resilience at a compelling cost, it seems this is an option that could scale up quickly from fairly uniform highway design and economies of scale. Protection of roadways in order to help them last longer before needing repair is one potentially large benefit itself, even before you get into the electricity generation benefit.
The PV-SÜD project is receiving funding from:
- Germany’s Federal Ministry for Climate Action, Environment, Energy, Mobility, Innovation and Technology (BMK)
- the Austrian Agency for the Promotion of Research (FFG)
- the German Federal Ministry of Transport
- Switzerland’s Federal Roads Office.
This is certainly not the first time this idea has been floated. We’ll see if this European team can help it to actually go somewhere.
Update: Some commenters have pointed out that we should focus on putting solar on underutilized roofs first. I agree that it’s logical to max out available rooftop space quickly, whether that be large commercial rooftops on Walmarts, Targets, and warehouses, or small residential rooftops. If you have a home with a free roof, I definitely encourage getting solar quotes from solar installers, and you are free to use my Tesla solar discount code — https://ts.la/zachary63404 — for $100 off a traditional Tesla solar panel roof or Solar Roof (the newfangled glass solar tiles Tesla has developed).
However, I think it’s important to realize that different people and different organizations have control over different buckets of money. While you may be able to put solar panels on your roof (and hopefully save thousands or tens of thousands of dollars versus paying your local utility for that electricity), the agency in charge of the highways near you cannot put solar panels on your roof or your local Target’s roof. They have their own budget and it is connected to the roadway network. If it turns out they can save money (or make a lot of money) by putting solar canopies along some stretches of road, they should do it! And that is additive to you putting solar panels on your roof, Target putting solar panels on its stores, IKEA putting solar panels on its
mazes — ahem, stores. Of course, the important thing for people managing the budgets of road networks is they need a good physical and technological solution for solar canopies over roadways that is cost effective in net and also practical and compatible with other roadway needs. We’ll see if this European trio can come up with something.