Solar roadways have captured the public’s imagination – see, for example, the viral “Solar FREAKIN’ Roadways” video produced by Solar Roadways and viewed more than 22 million times. And we certainly do use a lot of land for roads and parking lots – 61,000 square miles by some estimates. So why not use this space to also produce power?
I spoke with Allie Kelly, executive director of the nonprofit The Ray, which installed the solar roadway at the Georgia Visitor Information Center. She echoed this line of thinking, saying that an animating question for her organization’s work is “can the right of way bring an additional layer of value beyond its core mission of safe travel from Point A to Point B?” While this exploration of additional value streams is broad to the point of being overwhelming, The Ray determined that one of the earliest wins was energy production.
Pros & Cons of Solar Roadways
The solar road at the Georgia Visitor Information Center is produced by the French company Wattway and can be installed directly over existing roads, minimizing design and construction costs. According to Kelly, Wattway has durability on par with asphalt and concrete (approximately a 10-year lifespan) and has a higher friction and skid rating – meaning that it’s a safer travel surface – than traditional paving materials. Additionally, the panels are designed to be modular so the failure of one won’t bring down the entire system.
Despite all of this, there are reasons to be skeptical of solar (freakin’) roadways:
- Traffic is rough on roads. Think about how frequently roads need significant maintenance like repaving and how long that effort takes. Now complicate that by having delicate electronic equipment that needs to be removed and installed each time.
- A horizontal orientation isn’t good for solar. Solar panels are tilted to face south to maximize their efficiency. Roads generally tend to be flat – for good reason – and hence sub-optimize solar collection.
Kelly acknowledged some of the challenges putting solar panels on road surfaces, saying “We don’t know if Wattway is going to scale or not, but it was interesting enough for us to pilot on The Ray. Cost efficiency is going to be really critical and will change as the technology goes from pilot to scale.”
Better Energy Options for Rights of Way?
Taking a broader view, there may be better options for generating energy on rights of way including traditional ground-mount solar and wind. The Ray is looking at both of these options and is currently planning a 1 megawatt solar installation in partnership with the Georgia Department of Transportation and Georgia Power.
Kelly’s advice to utilities about solar roads (and energy production on highways in general) is to approach this as an emerging market. Be aware that your department of transportation (DOT) may start to ask similar questions about how to unlock additional value. In turn, understand that DOTs can serve as a resource for siting utility-scale renewables. In our Utility Trusted Brand & Customer Engagement study, we see a strong desire from customers for environmental stewardship from their utilities. Highly-visible renewables projects along roadways can be one way utilities can raise awareness of their efforts to support clean energy-generating technologies.
Fortunately, utilities and DOTs share a common core tenant: safety. From that strong foundation, they can build a mutually-beneficial relationship. “The core mission of DOTs is safe travel, and nothing we do can detract from that mission,” Kelly added.