Is The Solar Road Concept Viable?

solar roads

The idea of solar roads has a lot of people very excited – and some the opposite. It’s quite a polarising concept.

We first started covering news on solar roads back in 2010, initially with the Solar Roadways project. Solar Roadways is alive and well today after a very successful crowdfunding effort in 2014 that eventually raised more than $2.2 million.

What was touted as the world’s first solar road (actually a bike path – and a short one) has been in use in Krommenie, The Netherlands, since 2014. In May last year, the company behind the SolaRoad project, TNO, said the installation was performing beyond expectations. An update in November 2015 was fairly upbeat, although acknowledging a few teething problems that were resolved.

More recently, France’s plans to build 1,000 kilometres of solar roads using Wattways technology has attracted a lot of attention.

As we mentioned in that article, if solar roads do prove to be economically viable, technically feasible and easily maintained over the long term, the potential for clean power generation is massive given the amount of our built environment that has been covered by asphalt.

That may be quite a large “if” – and just because something can be done, it doesn’t necessarily mean it should.

There have been a number of concerns raised and questions posed regarding substantial solar road projects. In no particular order:

  • How will road maintenance workers be protect from high voltages?
  • How much cabling will be required?
  • Where do all the inverters go – will they be an eyesore and/or safety threat?
  • If a section of road is damaged through crashes or wear and tear, what are the consequences; both to the output and safety of road users?
  • What sort of impact on efficiency will normal road grime have?
  • Wouldn’t it be more economical and efficient to first install solar power systems on all available and viable rooftop space? After all, there’s still plenty of it.
  • Wouldn’t this be a new class of waste, as road surfaces generally wear out faster than rooftop solar PV?
  • How much more difficult, costly and disruptive will regular road maintenance become?
  • What about the impact of maintenance and repairs of what lays under roads – water mains, gas lines, etc.
  • Will micro-cracks in cells eventually form as a result of stresses, rendering them at best useless and at worst, unsafe?
  • Wouldn’t the money be better invested in R&D for lower cost solar materials for conventional applications?

… and the list goes on; many points relating to safety, cost and bang for buck.

Perhaps only time will tell with regard to some of these concerns, but France appears ready to give it a good old college try. The rest of the world may watch what happens in France very closely before deciding whether to embark on their own massive solar road projects.

At the very least, France’s brave (?) announcement has generated more interest in the potential for harnessing the power of the sun – and that aspect is a very good thing. Interest is the precursor to inspiration; the trigger for developments that can change the world for the better.