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Solar Roads: What’s the Deal?

Solar roads sound like something out of a science fiction movie or perhaps a 21st-century adaptation of The Wizard of Oz. But sometimes, the truth is stranger than fiction. Well, solar roads are indeed a real thing. But the question is this: what’s the deal with these roads, and are they actually viable?

We’ll also cover the reasons it may (or may not) make sense to install these energy-capturing roads. So, let’s get to it.

Why Solar Roads?

To the average observer, solar roads may seem like a strange concept. After all, what we have seems to work relatively well (except for pesky potholes). So, why the change? There are a couple of reasons it could make sense to build out solar roadways.

Energy Generation

The most obvious reason to build out these roadways is, of course, energy generation. That energy could power provide light to nearby areas, but can also light up the roadways and even melt snow.

At least in theory.

The question remains how well they can actually achieve that goal. Will the panels be efficient enough? Will they hold up to the rough conditions that roadways endure? We’ll cover that more in-depth later.

Save Space

The potential to save space is another attractive aspect of solar roads. After all, installing them on roads reduces the need to install solar panels on rooftops and on the ground. Although the fear of not having enough space for solar installations is a bit overblown, it’s never a bad idea to save space.

Thus, if this new form of roadway is viable, it might make a lot of sense to do it.

Save Money

Solar panels always have the potential to save money. Every kilowatt of power they generate can save money, assuming that power is cheaper fossil fuels. This is one of the reasons solar panel efficiency is so important; higher efficiency is what allows them to be cost-effective.

Later, we will find out whether some of the real-world solar roads have been efficient enough to save money.

Fossil Fuel Alternative

Fossil fuels have become ubiquitous to the point that we don’t always realize just how much of the things around us are made from. From plastic bottles to shopping bags, to yes, even asphalt, many of the things we use daily are products of the fossil fuel industry.

That might seem bad in terms of reducing fossil fuel consumption and production. Even our roadways are made from fossil fuel products in most cases. But that doesn’t mean there are plenty of alternatives.

If we aren’t producing such a huge amount of fossil fuels, we are going to need alternatives, and this could be one of them.

Do Solar Roads Actually Work?

As you are probably aware, all kinds of products sounded like a good idea, but the real thing never took off for one reason or another. Whether it’s Google’s Project Ara or purple ketchup, there have been all kinds of products that someone thought was a good idea, but they didn’t really work out.

Well, as it stands now, it looks as though solar roadways may be in that category. At least for now. Indeed, perhaps they will improve in the future. But the current iterations haven’t worked out so well. There are two main reasons for this:

Not Cost Effective

One of the biggest problems with existing solar roadways is that they haven’t been cost-effective. For instance, France launched a solar road project in 2016 called WattWay. These panels were 13 times more expensive than similar commercial rooftop solar installations. The cost was $20 per kWh compared to an average cost of $1.53.

Part of the reason the panels were so expensive is because they were strengthened with a silicon resin. This makes sense in a way since the panels would be subjected to very rough conditions. Nevertheless, such a high cost is prohibitive.

Solar roads are a promising technology, but difficult challenges remain (Benoit Tessier/Reuters)

Plus, the panels didn’t produce nearly as much power as expected. Perhaps that is due to the silicon resin, or perhaps it is due to conditions. Or both. Whatever the case may be, they only produced 409 kWh per day compared to a projected 767 kWh per day. By 2019, the road was producing just 40,000 kWh of power per year—far less than the projected 150,000.

There are many reasons for lower power output. One reason could be fallen leaves covering them, and another is unusually cloudy weather. But also consider what happens when traffic slows down or even stops. With cars completely covering the panels, output will drop quite a bit.

A Lack of Durability

At the time, WattWay was the longest solar road in the world at 0.6 miles. The cost was $5.2 million and hopes were high. But those hopes would be crushed—somewhat literally.

Indeed, many of the panels on the road have literally broken into pieces. Some even looked like a window that had shot with a handgun. They had to be destroyed since they couldn’t be repaired. So as annoying as potholes can be, at least they are somewhat fixable!

Solar Roads: Fantasy or Reality?

For now, at least, it seems like solar roads may be a fantasy; the dream of a clean future where every inch of our lives is covered in clean energy infrastructure. As it is today, that is not far from the truth when it comes to fossil fuels.

But can we actually realize a dream of solar roads and, well, solar everything? That is yet to be seen. For now, big challenges remain before they can be viable. The panels would have to be not only much more durable and efficient, but there is also cost to consider.

If these difficult challenges can be overcome, solar roads would be a compelling technology for the future. Hopefully, that future will eventually become the present.

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