Solar power in the SolaRoad…

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SolaRoad opened on the 12th November in the Northern Province of the Netherlands and is the world’s first public road surface to be embedded with solar panels. Nominated for an Accenture Innovation Award, this pilot project could pave the way to a future of financially and environmentally sustainable roadways.

So far this year at Total World Energy we have not been short of opportunities to profile exciting ‘firsts’ in the solar industry. In November we looked at The Lightning SuperBike – the world’s first electric motorcycle powered completely by solar energy. Debuted at the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb in June 2013, the SuperBike exceeded all expectations and went on to win, beating gas and electric powered competitors alike by an impressive 21 seconds. In August we profiled Solar Impulse – the first solar aircraft to fly through the night and around the globe. In October we reviewed the world-record setting MS Tûranor PlanetSolar, an entirely solar powered ship and the largest of its kind.

In this issue we touch upon the increasingly talked-about subject of sustainable infrastructure. How can we innovate in our towns and cities to create environmentally friendly infrastructure for the future? Can it not only be cost effective, but profitable? Taking a step closer towards this goal are the developers of SolaRoad – TNO, The Province of Noord-Holland, Ooms Civiel and Imtech.

An idea born out of a brainstorming session at TNO back in 2009, SolaRoad will harness the sun’s rays using crystalline silicon solar cells, embedded into concrete modules. Topped by one centimetre of translucent glass and running for 70 meters, the bike path in Krommenie, in the Netherlands is the first publicly accessible solar road in the world.

The €3.5 million (£2.4m) project is expected to produce enough electricity to power two or three houses when extended to 100 meters in 2016. The team behind SolaRoad plans to direct the power generated into practical applications – such as traffic signs, street-lamps and even vehicles. Electricity can also be fed back in to the public grid for local households. Once tested the functions will be extensive and the possibilities exciting.

Jan-Hendrik Kremer of Imtech sums up the long term goal of the pilot saying: “Imagine that all over the world, roads are generating solar power for the lighting along the roads, matrix signs, traffic lights, for homes and neighbourhoods that lie along the road or even the vehicles driving across the roads. With SolaRoad we are on our way to this future.”

The pilot will run for three years but there are key questions that need to be answered: How does the road behave in the long term? Is the road safe and comfortable to use? How much energy will it produce?

Although the panels are predicted to generate 30% less than those on a domestic property, if a success the long term plans would be to extend the surface further. There are 140,000 km of roadways in the Netherlands – a vast amount of potential and a thrilling prospect.

One of the problems that needed to be tackled by the consortium behind SolaRoad was the build-up of dirt and pollution on the surface. The road itself is slightly tilted to help prevent dust accumulating and there is a skid-resistant coating on the safety glass. The silicon solar panels have only been applied on half the width of the cycle path to allow for testing and to save money for further developments.

In fact, the consortium is a prime example of a successful marriage between commercial business, civil concern and research institution. The roots of the passion driving them can definitely be found in a real desire to contribute to a sustainable future for the Netherlands.

“Co-creation is effective in order to achieve innovation,” said Sten de Wit of TNO.

The Province Noord-Holland has set itself the target of producing 16% of all energy sustainably by 2020 and SolaRoad is one innovation that will contribute to this goal. According to the European Union, the gross electricity production in the Netherlands currently accounts for only 9.1% of the market, with only 1.3% of that being generated using solar energy.

Although not the first to have this idea – with Scott and Julie Brusaw of US company Solar Roadways coming up with their concept in 2006, SolaRoad is the first to put the idea into practice on a public route.

The SolaRoad pilot project is just one facet of the extraordinary range of solar concepts that we are currently seeing develop. We ask ourselves – is it possible to achieve what this pilot has the potential for? We already know key developments will be made because of the SolaRoad project. We could well be moving towards a future where we not only have high performance vehicles powered by the sun; but also sustainable infrastructure to support them. As Einstein said: “You can’t solve a problem on the same level that it was created. You have to rise above it to the next level;” so what will be the next level in solar innovation?

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