Standing on a train platform south west of London a few years ago, I felt the whoosh of another fast train rushing past. In the distance I could just see the large arms of a slow-turning wind turbine. I’m not an engineer, but in that moment two things came together in my mind, and I wondered why we don’t have small wind turbines down the side of every railway in the world?
We know this: we waste a lot of energy everyday, simply because we don’t harness it.
It takes energy to move, but every movement also creates energy. And all around us the world itself is moving: wind and waves especially are in perpetual motion.
But the biggest source of under-utilised energy is the sun. Our ability to harness solar power is improving dramatically year by year at the moment, both in terms of the technology to convert solar energy to electricity and also in reducing the price of doing so. Now, a further set of innovations is looking to change where we put solar panels. The most exciting of these projects is headed by Scott and Julie Brusaw from Idaho, USA, have developed hard wearing, modular solar panels that can be used as replacements for roads and tarmac. Their early pilot schemes have laid these solar panels in carparks, but the idea would be to use them on roads and highways around the world.
The solar paneling has a lot going for it. Of course, the primary benefit is that they generate electricity, which can be connected to the local grid. But this power can also be used to improve the road itself. Where most road surfaces ice over in freezing weather, solar roadways are equipped with heating elements that keep them clear of ice or snow. Where black tarmac absorbs light and therefore requires bright headlights at night, solar roadways can be fitted with LEDs to provide ambient light. In addition, the solar panels could be equipped with sensors to identify if someone or something is standing on it – and LEDs can be lit to show these obstructions in the road. Road markings can also be illuminated, rather than painted – and therefore can be easily changed. The roads also won’t get as hot (they are green, not black in colour). Where potholes burden travelers for months, individual damaged solar roadway panels can be fixed in a matter of minutes because nearby panels deliver automated alerts to electricians, and the panels are easily individually replaced. The designers’ website also suggests a variety of other benefits, from carrying wifi signals to dealing better with rainwater. See their website here.
Many industries are being changed by digitisation. It appears even roads can be disrupted in this.
Can they delivery all of this at a reasonable price, with longevity and durability? Well, that remains to be seen. And they’re funding their next stage of development now.
The project has currently just finished an initial round of crowdsourcing on Indiegogo, with a $2.2 million investment (See here), and are now in the proof of concept phase of development. The panels are not cheap, but if they work, they’ll easily pay for themselves. But don’t expect the fossil fuels industries to embrace them. I am sure this innovation will get strong opposition. They’ve started answering some of their critics already here.
Read FastCompany’s article for more info.