Public Works: Could a Solar Power–Generating Road Someday Power Your Car?
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Public Works: Could a Solar Power–Generating Road Someday Power Your Car?

In the Netherlands, a new bike path paved with solar energy cells may signal a revolution in green energy infrastructure.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

Photo courtesy of SolaRoad

Photo courtesy of SolaRoad.

An Amsterdam suburb now has a bike path that generates solar energy. On November 12, 2014, Dutch minister of economic affairs Henk Kamp unveiled a 70-metre cycle route in the commuter town of Krommenie, Netherlands, kicking off what could become national trend in power-producing roads.

Called SolaRoad, the innovation consists of 2.5-by-3.5-metre sheets of concrete, overlaid with crystalline silicon solar cells, and a centimetre-thick layer of protective, skid-resistant, tempered glass.

Kamp told reporters at the unveiling that the Netherlands aimed to triple its use of sustainable energy within five years and be energy-neutral by 2050.

Over the past year, the Netherlands has seen such eco-energy advances as solar panel “skins” retrofitted onto old houses and a bike path illuminated at night by millions of glowing, solar-powered nibs meant to look like van Gogh’s “Starry Night”.

“This could be a breakthrough in the field of sustainable energy supply,” writes Sten de Wit, one of the minds behind SolaRoad. “In particular, if the road concept will develop into a system, with which the generated electricity [powers] the vehicles driving on the road. Try to imagine that power will then be generated at the place where it is needed.”

The solar road panels are tilted slightly to ensure surface grime is washed easily away by rain. But, because they are still relatively flat, the panels get less sun exposure than a typical, angled solar energy unit and generate 30 per cent less power as a result.

Still, SolaRoad’s creators say that once the path in Krommenie is lengthened to 100 metres in 2016, it will have the capacity to power two or three homes.

A segment of solar energy path surface. Photo courtesy of SolaRoad.

A segment of solar energy path surface. Photo courtesy of SolaRoad.

Prior to the official launch date, the SolaRoad had been in operation for 16 days, and generated 140 kilowatt hours of electricity—about enough power to drive a 2012 Nissan Leaf electric car for 660 km.

Product testing has shown that the panels are strong enough to support large vehicles, suggesting they could be used in streets, not just bike paths. In an interview with the Guardian, de Wit speculated that up to 20 per cent of Dutch roadways (around 28,000 km) could be adapted to SolaRoad.

Now consider how much road and path surface area exists in Toronto. It’s virtually a blank canvas. We have 5,600 km of roads, 7,945 km of sidewalk, 322 km of public laneways, and 280 km of trails. Not all of it would be a good fit for solar energy cells—but why not maximize the power potential of what we’ve got?