What are solar roadways?

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railway tunnel covered with solar panels next to a highway

What if we take something millions of people use every day and turn it into something that could also make clean energy? Well, that’s the idea behind solar roads. The first solar road was built in the French region of Normandy in 2016. Since then, the idea has been tested by a few different countries.

Currently, there’s only one solar road in the United States (in Peachtree Corners, Georgia) — most likely because these roads have a few problems that need to be worked out.

Key takeaways:

  • The first solar roadway was introduced in 2016.
  • Solar roadways are made from three layers: a protective glass layer, solar panels and a base plate to distribute the energy the panels create.
  • Most solar runways haven’t been found to be practical or cost-efficient.

Understanding solar roads

Solar roads, which can be equipped with additional features such as LED lights and heated panels, serve a dual purpose by facilitating vehicular traffic and producing solar energy. The concept of solar roads is part of broader efforts to explore alternative, sustainable energy sources.

What are solar roads made of?

Solar roads consist of three layers. First is a durable glass layer that’s textured to ensure vehicle tires can get a good grip on the road. The second layer is solar panels made out of photovoltaic cells, much like the panels found on rooftops. The last layer is a base plate that distributes the energy made by the panel.

Some roadways also include extra features. They can use LED lights instead of painted lines to keep drivers on track, and heated panels can prevent ice from forming during chilly weather, providing better traction.

How does a solar roadway work?

Like other solar panels, solar roadways collect light from the sun, which then reacts with the silicon cells inside the panels to create electricity. The electricity is then converted from DC to AC power to be used by homes and businesses.

» LEARN MORE: How do solar panels work?

Pros and cons of solar roadways

Solar roads have a lot of potential benefits.

“The fundamental idea of solar roads is very smart and might seem like a potential technology in the future,” said Matas Buzelis, the president of the Association of Automotive Intelligence and an automotive expert at carVertical.

“Lowering greenhouse emissions and reducing the dependence on fossil fuels are very important for the inevitable global warming. Solar roads serve two core purposes, as they allow the movement of vehicles and, at the same time, capture plenty of energy from the sun.”

Aside from providing clean energy, solar roads could make travel safer by making road markings more visible with LED lighting and preventing slick road conditions with self-heating. Smart roads could even incorporate communication technologies that make autonomous vehicles safer.

Solar roads ... allow the movement of vehicles and, at the same time, capture plenty of energy from the sun.”
— Matas Buzelis, president of the Association of Automotive Intelligence

“However, all these perks come with a very steep price tag,” Buzelis said. The road in Normandy, for example, cost more than $5 million and only stretched a little over half a mile.

Another problem is the need for maintenance, Buzelis added. Solar roads would need to be maintained with much more attention than conventional asphalt requires. Dirt, leaves and motor oil can block the sun from reaching the solar panels, so these roads would need to be cleaned a lot more frequently.

Unlike conventional solar panels, solar roads can’t be tilted to best capture sunlight. This makes them less efficient.

“It sounds like it has a lot of potential, but the challenges to make such technology work in real life may be too demanding in terms of cost,” Buzelis said.

» DISCOVER: Best solar energy companies of 2023

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What are some additional features of solar roads?

Beyond energy generation, solar roads can include features such as LED lights for enhanced visibility and heated panels to prevent ice formation. These features help contribute to safer driving conditions.

What are the challenges faced by solar roads?

Despite their potential, solar roads face several challenges. These include high costs, the need for frequent maintenance and lower efficiency compared with traditional solar panels due to their flat orientation.

Are solar roads cost-effective?

Currently, the high cost of installation and maintenance makes solar roads less cost-effective than traditional roads and solar panels. However, ongoing research and development may improve their cost-effectiveness in the future.

» DISCOVER: How much do solar panels cost?

How do solar roads handle dirt and debris?

Solar roads require frequent cleaning; dirt, leaves and other debris can block sunlight and reduce their efficiency. This adds to their maintenance requirements.

Article sources
ConsumerAffairs writers primarily rely on government data, industry experts and original research from other reputable publications to inform their work. Specific sources for this article include:
  1. Architect, “ World’s First Solar Roadway Opens in France .” Accessed June 27, 2023.
  2. University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment, “ Solar Roadways .” Accessed June 27, 2023.
  3. Iowa State University Institute for Transportation, “ Groundbreaking: Solar panel roadways .” Accessed June 27, 2023.
  4. PR Newswire, “ Peachtree Corners Smart City and The Ray Install USA's First Road Surface Solar Panels on Autonomous Vehicle Lane .” Accessed June 27, 2023.
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