Could solar roadways be the asphalt of tomorrow?

Over the years, there has been an exponential growth in the applications for solar panels. Some theories state that if we were to install a huge array of solar panels over a wide area, we could generate enough electricity to power entire cities, thereby, decelerating the energy crisis. The problem, however, is the availability of that kind of land area. More specifically, land area in geographical regions that are optimal for solar power generation.

Without suitable super-large scale land area for generation of clean energy, 100% dependency on renewables is a distant dream. Or, is it? We do have one of the largest networks of roadways, all over the country. Ideating on these lines, we reach a plausible solution: solar panels integrated with our highways.

Does this mean panels are along the roadways, or that the roads themselves have the photovoltaic capability?

Now, let’s dig deeper into the concept of solar roads and ask ourselves if it could be the asphalt of the future.

Solar roadways are interlinked, structurally engineered solar panels that replace conventional asphalt roads.

Solar roads are electricity grid 2.0

Solar roads can power small businesses and act as cable carriers for internet, telephone, and cable TV. They can provide power to display important traffic signs and light-up the roads. They can heat themselves to melt the snow and clear the way during winter in the northern parts of the country. These roads can improve the feasibility of using electric cars, by making it easier to provide more charging stations.

What are they made up of?

The cross section is:

1. Surface layer
2. Optical / electronics layer
3. Base-plate layer

The topmost layer consists of the photovoltaic cells in a hardened glass. Transparency (translucent), hardness, and roughness are the key factors taken into consideration. Roughness on solar roads is required to provide necessary friction for the vehicles to avoid slippage. Each solar panel is linked properly with the other layers making it easily serviceable. The LEDs and the heating element go into this layer. Most importantly, waterproofing is done to avoid water leakage into the electronics unit below.

The optical / electronics layer consists of the control equipment to monitor heating and lighting elements, and all the basic electronics required to generate power through photovoltaics.

The base-plate layer transmits the power generated. The energy captured by the surface layer and collected by the electronics layer is then transmitted by the base-plate layer. Power to all the homes and businesses connected to solar roadways is distributed through this layer.

Key takeaways from the concept of solar roads.

> Apart from being a source of clean and renewable energy, solar roads have a lifespan of 30 to 40 years while conventional roads have a lifespan of about 5 to 8 years (without monsoon damage).
> They will provide on-the-go charging for electric vehicles, promoting EV adoption.
> They will create new employment opportunities. 
> They will reduce our country's carbon footprint.

Solar roads: some valid concerns that need to be addressed

Then, there's always a question of durability and efficiency. Conventional roads take a lot of load from cars, trucks, motorcycles, and trailers. How would solar roads hold up against that kind of load? Say, we depend on them to power traffic signals and charge electric vehicles. What happens if the panels are damaged? Also, the cost of repairing these solar panels is likely to be more expensive than it would be for fixing asphalt roads.

Solar panel highways is undoubtedly a unique and groundbreaking idea. While there are potential pitfalls, we stand to gain a lot by making solar roads better as a technology and a product. This might be an opportunity to zip ahead in renewable energy adoption.

But, is the NHAI listening?
Written by Kiran Ramesh, who works with Solarify in Bangalore, India

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Solarify is a Solar Energy company based out of Bangalore.

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