Solar Freakin' Roadway Opens in China

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©. Xinhua

Is this totally silly and a waste of time and money, or is it a great leap forward? Or is it too soon to tell?

We are positive and forward-looking on TreeHugger. We are all happy techno-optimists who always look on the bright side of life. But there is one thing that I have never understood, that I have always thought was the dumbest idea ever (until Elon Musk came along with his tunnels) and that was the solar roadway. I used to say that perhaps the only place dumber for solar panels than under a roadway was under my basement floor, but now would say inside Elon Musk’s car tunnels is worse.

building solar roadway

China Daily/viaBut after complaining about installations in the USA, the Netherlands, and France, perhaps it is time to reconsider, in the face of the biggest solar roadway yet, in Jinan, China. According to China Daily it is 2 kilometers long (1.24 miles) and built with three layers: an insulating layer at the bottom, the photovoltaics in the middle, and then protected on top with a slab of "transparent concrete."

According to Echo Huang in Quartz, the solar collecting area totals 5,875 square meters (63,200 sq ft) and will generate one million kWh (3412 million BTUs or 750,000 horsepower hours for American readers) of electricity in a year. The cost was about 3,000 yuan per square meter, or about US$ 42.6 per square foot.

Over on Triple Pundit, Leon Kaye notes that solar roadways certainly get a lot of attention.

Similar projects worldwide have succeeded in scoring copious amounts of headlines, as well as questions about whether the benefit of these experiments are really worth their cost. And of course, China has a history of announcing eye-popping infrastructure projects that at first seem a great leap forward for sustainability until they are given a closer once-over. For example, a “straddling bus” last year scored plenty of buzz at first, followed by heaps of ridicule.

He also notes that "other solar roads built elsewhere have proven to be a mixed bag." Indeed. The one in the Netherlands generates only 30 percent of what roof-mounted panels would, and cost millions of dollars. It just had to be strong enough to withstand the weight of bikes; the Jinan road has to deal with the pressure and vibration caused by trucks and buses. The sun has to get through dirt and oil that comes off of all those trucks, buses and cars.

But whenever I have raised these complaints in the past, readers have pointed out that "this is an innovative idea. It's refreshing to see such original ideas out in the world. While people may criticize, there are always trial and test periods for any technology. " And Scott Brusaw, inventor of the original American solar roadway, pointed out that highways are a logical place to put a linear power system like this.

"It's a solar panel, people. It doesn't matter where you put it". Actually, it does. The largest obstacle to solar power today is the logistical nightmare of getting the power into the power grid. The Solar Roadways solve that problem by BECOMING the power grid with the capacity to send power wherever it's needed.

So, in the spirit of the New Year and our happy techno-optimism, I am going to swallow my skepticism and declare this a Great Leap Forward for solar power generation, and hope that they keep on trucking.