Preserving the Environment

The Solar Highway of the Future

June 12, 2017
by
The Solar Highway of the Future
The Ray, an experimental roadway in southeast Georgia, uses solar energy to power an electric vehicle charging station at a nearby rest stop. Courtesy of The Ray
As many of America’s asphalt and concrete roads crumble, solar pavement may offer a brighter future.

Off Interstate 85 along the Alabama-Georgia border, an area of asphalt the size of two SUVs parked nose-to-nose is soaking up the sun. But unlike traditional blacktop, it’s capturing solar energy and using it to power a nearby information booth and electric car-charging station.

This bright idea to cover a roadway with solar tiles stems from the notion that highways should be dual purpose.

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“Roads are an extremely underutilized resource right now. They’re just asphalt that takes us from Point A to Point B,” says Anna Cullen, director of external relations for The Ray, the Atlanta-based project that installed the tiles. “We don’t have anything in our lives today that is just one purpose. A road should be the same.”

Solar roads have already been installed in the Netherlands and France. Georgia’s patch is the first in the United States.  

But cost is a significant roadblock. The tiles — which are thankfully skid resistant — are composed of expensive materials imported from France. Plus, they must be laid on top of existing pavement, which is labor intensive.

MORE: Building the Future: Sustainable Infrastructure

And there’s the question of whether the tiles will generate as much energy as is projected. In Sandpoint, Idaho, a company called Solar Roadways paved a town square with hexagonal solar panels that were meant to generate electricity for nearby restrooms and a fountain. The multi-million-dollar project collects just a fraction of the energy it intended — only enough to operate a hairdryer.

“Aside from road dust, particularly black tire dust and diesel exhaust, which will quickly cover a portion of each panel, the continuous traffic covering panels will reduce their solar output,” Stanford University Engineering Professor Mark Jacobson told National Geographic last year.

If successful, however, Georgia’s project could become the model for the entire United States, where hundreds of thousands of roadways are in need of repair.

Homepage photo courtesy of The Ray.

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