Hybrids & Electrics

Could Electric Cars Be Powered by the Roads They Ride On?

Source: SolaRoad
Source: SolaRoad

There’s a new spin on environmentally friendly transportation, and it doesn’t have as much to do with the vehicle as it does with the road you ride upon. A report by Autoblog discusses a series of bike paths in the Netherlands which have been encased in layers of tempered glass and solar panels in the hopes of generating electricity and hopefully a spark of global interest in the use of roadways for more than just transit. It sounds ambitious, but the kicker is this 230-foot-long “SolaRoad” actually does work, and it has been cranking out more voltage than anyone previously predicted.

The high-tech bike path has reportedly churned-out more than 3,000 kilowatt hours of energy since it was first “plugged-in” last November, enough to power a one-person household for an entire year. This is a promising development for the future of renewable energy, as it could spell a whole new source for electric vehicles in the future, with the roads powering the vehicles atop them similar to modern electric bullet trains. Naturally, this would take many years of development, but theoretically it’s a sound idea.

Currently, the technology isn’t there just yet. For the time being, engineers have to first figure out how to improve and extrapolate the system. The use of Solaroads makes sense, especially in places like the American Midwest and California, where sunshine dominates the calendar year. But in order to do this, engineers and scientists are going to have to first overcome some pretty substantial obstacles.

Using a solar-clad roadway for bicycles is one thing. Giving them the strength to withstand the crushing weight of a fully-loaded semi is a whole new issue. There also is the problem with delamination, due to temperature change, as well as the cost of surface re-coating, and a general lack of connectivity in remote areas. But the biggest issue by far is that a short strip of bike path costs a staggering $3.7 million to build, so imagine what a strip of highway would run the average tax payer.

Source: SolaRoad
Source: SolaRoad

There are still a lot of unknowns hanging in the balance as well, including environmental effects of solar cell production. Concerned citizens may think they are lessening their carbon footprint by using solar, but when was the last time someone really looked at how these things are made? If most of us took a closer look at solar, we would realize that fabrication involves caustic chemicals like sodium hydroxide and hydrofluoric acid, and that the process uses both water and electricity, which emits an unhealthy amount of greenhouse gases. An investigation by National Geographic last year reveals some disturbing facts about the dark underside of this sunshine-filled business, and to sum it up adequately “the industry is becoming more — not less — opaque when it comes to the sustainability of its manufacturing practices.” Fortunately, once built, solar is largely passive and non-detrimental.

Downsides aside, we can’t overlook the fact that the three-year experiment is working far better than expected. It’s merely the shape of what is to come; since its opening last November, more than 150,000 cyclists have rolled down the SolaRoad, and according to the path’s developers, many riders “hardly notice it is a special path.” Sten de Wit, spokesman of SolaRoad, says that the energy harvested in the last six months from the path can send an electric-powered scooter around the world 2.5 times, and that the team who built the contraption “did not expect a yield as high as this so quickly.”

The cycle path features a concrete base, and in one lane, solar cells are fitted beneath tempered glass that is only about one centimeter thick. It’s covered by a transparent, skid-resistant coating that has peeled back in certain areas due to the weather, requiring a recent re-coat. An opposite lane has been purposefully left solar-free so that it may be used to test various coatings and to cut costs. The path has also been designed to include sensors that may one day be used to provide traffic data to drivers and navigation systems based upon traffic speeds and car count.

The overwhelming success from this project has brought with it a lot of press from international communities, and shortly after SolaRoad’s recent announcement, discussions about follow-up pilots began for surrounding provinces in the Netherlands. If all goes well for the program in upcoming months, the province of North Holland will proceed with a cooperation agreement it has in place with the state of California. SolaRoad says its next step is to use the solar electricity harvested from the road to power street lighting, traffic lights, and illuminated traffic signs. From there the company hopes to expand its solar footprint to powering households and eventually electric cars as they drive down its expensive expanse.