It’s not often that you see a story at Gas 2 inspired by Global Construction Review. In fact, this may be the first. GCR reports that France is working on a project to cover 1000 kilometers of roads with specially modified solar panels. Ségolène Royal, France’s minister of ecology and energy, says, “The maximum effect of the program, if successful, could be to furnish 5 million people with electricity, or about 8% of the French population.”
This is not some solar sidewalk we are talking about here, folks. This is a major step forward in the greening of the world’s electrical energy supply. According to France’s Agency of Environment and Energy Management, 4 meters of solarized road (about 14 feet) is enough to supply the electrical needs of one household, not counting heat. One kilometer (0.62 mile) will supply enough electricity for a community of 5,000 inhabitants.
The specialized solar panels were developed by Colas, which bills itself as the “World leader in the construction and maintenance of transport infrastructure.” It introduced its Wattway panels last October. They 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.
Minister Royal says installation of the first Wattway panels will begin this spring. She plans to install 600 miles of Wattway panels over the next 5 years and pay for them by raising taxes on fossil fuels. Royal says the best time to raise fuel taxes is now while prices are low. New taxes would contribute up to $440 million for the construction of her Positive Energy plan.
The idea sounds wonderful, on paper. I happen to live in New England, where millions of pounds of salt are dumped on our roads each winter, local radio stations conduct “biggest pothole” contests every spring, and frost heaves are a way of life. Would a solar highway be able to stand up to such rigors?
Joseph Palmer left this comment to the GCR story: “This really seems impracticable. The electrical panel connections are exposed to pooling water in the rain. The panels are near horizontal, which makes sense at the equator, but loses a lot of efficiency in Northern countries. The surface will be quickly worn by traffic, and will get dirty and scuffed up very quickly. It looks like the panels must be shoulder to shoulder – looks fine on the pictured parking lot, but road surfaces frequently crack and separate, making the mounting surface uneven, placing stress on the panels. We’ll see, but this idea is up against a number of real world problems.”
What do you think about this idea? Would it work in the US if it was limited to states where ice and snow are not a problem? There are thousands of miles of sun drenched roads between San Diego and Jacksonville. If they were all covered with solar panels, they might produce enough electricity to meet much of the country’s energy needs. But wouldn’t it be easier and cheaper to just install conventional solar panels in all the median areas along the way?
Share your thoughts with us in the comments section.