A new word has been added to the dictionary this year. Innovations in transport and energy have brought us the ‘watt-way’, coined by a French firm making motorways out of solar panels.
Renting farmland to install photovoltaic panels and generate energy from the sun can mean that fertile land becomes unproductive for agriculture. Engineering firm Colas (a subsidiary of bigwig construction, real estate, telecommunications and media company, Bouygues SA) came up with a possible solution – placing solar panels on roads, bicycle paths, playing fields and other areas that are already paved.
A number of projects are being tested by the firm in France and elsewhere this year.
A village in Normandy attracted the attention of the French media last month as the start of a solar motorway was declared open. Financed by France’s ministry for environment to the tune of €5 million, the first kilometre of the ‘watt-way’ was laid on an existing road. Made up of 2,880 photovoltaic panels, it generates more than enough power for public street lighting in the village of Tourouvre-au-Perche, population 3,400.
Roads of the future may rely on sensors to make them intelligent and able to communicate
The experimental kilometre is a pilot project. If all goes well there are plans to extend the scheme to 1,000km of motorway in France. The project would provide electricity to around five million people – about eight per cent of France’s population.
Yet there has been scepticism concerning the lifespan and costs of the solar motorway. Covering roads with solar panels presented some challenges:
■ The panels give a lower yield compared to conventional photovoltaic panels.
■ They have to be able to take the weight of heavy vehicles.
■ Being laid flat, they also have to be very well sealed from rainwater with a top layer of silicon resin.
■ These panels are only suitable for roads that have been recently asphalted. The road must comply with stipulated technical and commercial specifications and have no cracks, ruts or unevenness. While this may rule out PV panels for Maltese road surfaces, it is more likely to be the cost that is prohibitive.
Turning a street into a smart road would offer no end of pportunities. Roads of the future may rely on sensors to make them intelligent and able to communicate.
The dream is for integrated sensors that are built into solar road panels to provide real-time information on traffic conditions, help manage traffic dynamically and allow the road to self-diagnose potential maintenance issues. Electric vehicles could also be charged using induction technology.
Electric car owners have already done away with handling obnoxious petrol station fuel nozzles. Their next step is to abandon cords and charging ports by harnessing electro-magnetism with wireless induction charging pads.
An antenna would pick up the charge and direct it to a battery as the car moves over charging pads embedded in the road. This concept could bring down vehicle costs, although the infrastructure for it would be incredibly expensive to install.
Meanwhile, US competitors of the French solar road project say they are hopeful that President Donald Trump’s pledge to “pump billions into infrastructure” could somehow translate into helping develop this technology in the United States.
A solar panel road tile can incorporate a heating element to keep roads in snowbound areas a few degrees above zero. The expense of snow ploughs could be avoided. Solar panels with LED lights can be configured to different traffic layouts, such as parking bays and diversions during roadworks. Sports grounds can make use of this feature by choosing different floor configurations for basketball and other games.
Even so, spending on solar technology for roads and paved surfaces may not be what the incoming President had in mind.
A prototype solar road tile in the shape of a hexagon is being tested this year in Idaho by US Solar Roads.
Starting out as a family business, tinkering in their garage, Scott and Julie Brusaw turned to crowdfunding when a 2009 grant from the US Department of Transportation ran out.
At issue is the safety aspect of walking or driving on tempered glass, used instead of silicon to seal the panels. More rounds of testing are needed.
Not to be discouraged, while waiting for official approval for their solar road panels, the Brusaws have decided to apply the same idea on a smaller scale in various ways. Performance of test panels on a train platform, a downtown pedestrian walkway and an airport tarmac will be streamed to the public for monitoring.
Technical limitations apart, navigating the complicated network of private, state and federal rules for transportation planning would be a major headache.
To get around this, testing could take place on tribal lands, which have their own rules governing roads. Installing solar road panels at a casino or outfitting a small residential road on an Indian reservation are among the possibilities if this technology is to have a future.