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Solar Roads: Are They Possible?

Are solar roads realistic?  We think so!

We all know that solar energy is an incredible form of clean energy, and the reasons are apparent. The sun is going to keep streaming out light for billions of years, so it is, effectively, “free energy” that plants have been taking advantage for as long as life has existed on our planet. However, while the technology to harness solar energy has been available for decades, the cost of that technology has not always made it feasible.

That is one of the reasons why, in the 1970s and 1980s, the most common application of solar power was on calculators. The construction—and maintenance—requirements of more substantial, solar panel arrays wasn’t cost-effective for the mass market. Of course, a few decades later, things have changed a lot. Now, there are even local solar installers putting up solar panels for homes right here in Boston and the rest of Massachusetts.

But there’s one new, very unusual concept that’s starting to be explored, and that is the “solar road.” What is a solar road, and can it actually work?

Solar Roads Take a Lot of Coordination

The basic premise of the solar road is to remove the traditional, simpler asphalt composition that automobile roads are made with, and instead lay down solar panel arrays that stretch out for miles and miles. This arrangement addresses two significant design requirements for solar energy collection. Solar panels need to occupy a lot of space to be effective. However, most people are uncomfortable with sacrificing farm or real estate land to build a “clean energy farm.” Taking solar panels “on the road” solves both of these issues.

However, meeting the needs of solar power construction and layout, while simple in concept, is very challenging in execution. Laying out the solar arrays and establishing a functional roadway for vehicles demands a lot of reinforcement in order to protect the photovoltaic cells, which are very delicate. On their own, the solar cells cannot stand up to the rigors of cars and trucks running over them. Then there is the issue of transmitting the power to transformers and power lines so the grid can deliver that electricity to homes and businesses.

Design Challenges to Solar Roads

Some American companies are tackling the obstacles in the way of solar roads. While they’re not yet doing solar installations in Boston, the company Solar Roadways, based in Sandpoint, Idaho, has been working on solutions. In 2011, the company created a “solar parking lot,” which was able to sustain up to 250,000 lbs of load.

Solar Roadways is working on a new type of glass that would be ideal as a road surface. This glass would protect the solar panels and endure the load of hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of vehicles every day. At the same time, a special glass would provide the traction that vehicles need, without interfering with the absorption of sunlight.

A Work in Progress

Solar roads are a much more significant undertaking than a solar roof, and we may be decades away from seeing this implemented at large, but it’s an intriguing idea and technology is ever-evolving to make such innovations possible!

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