Solar Bike Path: Now this is innovation

People at UVA and in Charlottesville ride their bikes daily, and with the new bike-share program recently rolled out, there is destined to be increased bike traffic. Riding your bike does wonders for the environment and makes you feel better as well, but what if there were more benefits that could be gained from such a simple form of transportation? More so, roads are being paved everywhere we turn, and with such a large area of the city, country, and world covered by pavement, couldn’t something be done to put all that surface to better use?

This week in the Netherlands, the town of Krommenie to be specific, a project that integrates solar panels into a bike commuter path will officially open. Power generated by the SolaRoad’s panels will be funneled into the national energy grid, and the project is being called the world’s first public road that includes embedded solar cells. The crystalline silicon solar cells are encased in two layers of tempered safety glass, mounted in a concrete housing. SolaRoad, the company producing the slabs, says it’s been a challenge to produce energy-producing slabs that are both durable and rideable by thousands of cyclists a day.

Installation of the SolaRoad, the first section of which will be 230 feet long
Installation of the SolaRoad, the first section of which will be 230 feet long

The overall goal, of course, is that this idea could someday lead to roads that generate the same power that electric cars use to travel on them. The researchers say the portion of the path that’s opening Wednesday could meet the electrical demands of two or three houses for a year. Because they lie flat instead of being angled to take optimal advantage of the sun, the path’s panels will produce about 30 percent less power than similar panels might produce on a rooftop. In Holland, however, total road surface area is “significantly larger” than that of rooftops that could host solar panels. Similarly, the United States has over 2.6 million miles of paved road, and an additional 1.4 million miles unpaved, indicating huge potential for this technology.

While the main issue with projects such as these is the cost, there have been many other innovations that have been or are being pursued. In the U.S., an Indiegogo campaign for the Idaho-based Solar Roadways project raised $2.2 million earlier this year to pursue a more elaborate vision. It would integrate features such as LED lights and heating elements into structurally engineered road panels. A city in South Korea has been testing its OLEV (Online Electric Vehicle) system, which uses special sections of road to recharge electric-powered buses, enabling them to carry less weight in batteries.

Even with a lower yield from the roads than a traditional solar panel, the simple pursuit of this project is amazing. The innovation shows that there are incredible things that can be done not only to mitigate problems with energy sources, but can be expanded to show what kinds of innovation can happen in all sorts of sustainability categories.

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