Solar energy started off fringe. Once reserved to the roofs of affluent homes or campuses of large companies, solar panels have rocketed in popularity over the past decade thanks to falling manufacturing costs. Now some predict we could one day see these alternative sources of energy lining our streets. It’s a bold prediction, albeit attractive.
So we have to wonder: What benefits could we expect from solar-powered roads and what’s holding them back?
Benefits (Sunny side of the street)
Reduced Land Use
With solar panels lining roads, we would no longer need huge swaths of land to sustain energy production operations. More green energy = more green spaces.
Efficient Energy Distribution
Since roads wind through all parts of a city, there’d be little distance to travel from energy source to energy user. This means virtually no power lost in travel, unlike when energy is produced far off-site.
Increased Driver Safety
Any electrical energy produced could be used to heat roads during winter, eliminating ice and snow. Cities could also install light diodes directly in the road that could alert drivers to accidents or construction and direct them to a quicker, safer route.
The upsides of solar-powered roads are clear, so what’s standing in their way?
Asphalt Under Pressure
The asphalt used in a majority of US roads is meant to compress slightly to accommodate heavy trucks and cars. While this compression is handy for the longevity of roadways now, it would crack any solar panels installed in the future. It’s likely we’d need to switch to concrete roads before we added solar panels, which would be costly and time-consuming.
Cost of Maintenance
It currently costs about $11 per square foot to repair an asphalt road every 10 years or so. The cost of repairing/replacing solar panels would cost about four times as much. However, solar roads would likely require less frequent replacement and the added energy production could offset many of the installation costs. Still, for now the initial price tag on this type of project has many developers and officials at bay.
It may be some time before we see solar roadways widespread throughout the US, but China has already begun embedding solar panels, mapping sensors and electric-battery rechargers into roads. Perhaps if they find success, we can use them as a model for own endeavors.
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– Jake Ritzheimer
TrafficCast International, East Coast Operations