Solar Roadways: Paving the Way to Safer and Greener Highways

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car wheel on a solar roadway

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As the world works toward a more sustainable future, solar panels have become one of the most recognized elements of green living. They are on the rooftops of houses, on large plots of land, and even on the roofs and hoods of some electric vehicles. 

To lessen human dependency on energy, some environmental experts have theorized that roads and highways would be ideal locations for solar panels to soak up the sun’s rays and power whole cities. Let’s examine how solar roadways might pave the way to a future of safer, greener travel.

How Solar Roadways Work 

Solar roads are any road with solar panel technology attached to the surface. They serve a dual purpose by producing solar energy while cars and trucks drive on them. These roads can feature additional equipment, such as heated panels and LED lighting, to melt ice and snow, power street and lane lights, and make driving safer and greener. 

There are three individual solar panel layers on solar roads: 

  • A base plate that distributes collected power
  • A cluster of solar photovoltaic cells that gathers energy
  • A top layer of high-strength, hexagonal tempered, and textured glass with traction for vehicles.
Solar roadway layers
Solar roadway layers, via Wattway

Solar roads will generate the most energy in the mornings and late afternoons when sunlight is the highest and traffic the heaviest. Solar roads are an excellent example of how sustainability and technology work together in transportation infrastructure. 

Development and Implementation

The development and implementation of solar roads is an ongoing process worldwide. Currently, many countries are considering where and when to build solar roads. Those places that have successfully instituted solar roads are:

Normandy, France

Solar roadway in Tourouvre-au-Perche, Normandy, France by Wattway; via COLAS

In 2016, the town of Tourovre-au-Perche in Normandy, France, built the Wattway, the first solar road. It was 1 kilometer in length, roughly half a mile, and its solar panels covered 2800 square feet of road. The Wattway was intended to support the town’s daily lighting and supply energy for traffic lights, EV charging stations, and residential homes. 

Jinan, China

Solar roadway in Shandong
solar roadway in Shandong / Credit: XinhuaNet

China opened a 1-kilometer solar road in Jinan, Shandong Province, in late 2017. The road could generate up to 1GWh yearly, powering around 800 homes. The Chinese government intended to use generated power for billboards, CCTV cameras, and street lights. 

This project was also meant to allow electric vehicles to charge while driving on the road, meaning that smart charging for EVs,which would help achieve a sustainable future, would be available in locations near the highway. By investing in EVs and solar roads, society can avoid further dependency on the current, failing electric grid structure. EVs would be able to charge while driving on solar roads and, at the same time, feed energy back into the grid and enhance its capabilities. 

Peachtree Corners, Georgia

COLAS Wattway solar roadway
COLAS : Route solaire Wattway – © Joachim Bertrand / COLAS

The first solar road in the United States lies in Peachtree Corners, Georgia. The city used solar panels in a section of its Technology Parkway in a testing lane for autonomous vehicles. The solar installation will produce 1300 kWh of electricity annually and then power a Level 2 electric-car changing station that electric vehicles can use for free. Eventually, this solar road will have charging infrastructure, making it ideal for new EV drivers as they won’t have to worry about range anxiety and can enjoy contributing to a greener environment.

Traditional vs. Solar Roadways 

While the work toward developing solar roads continues, it’s worth looking at the differences between traditional roadways and those powered by solar cells. The technology behind a solar road, combined with advanced technological safety features in cars, can provide significant environmental and safety benefits for communities in the future.

Traditional Roadways

Traditional roads present significant environmental drawbacks, including the dust generated by asphalt and substantial pollution generated over the road’s life cycle. Road dust combines past industrial metals, traffic paint, asphalt, and small bits of car parts, tires, and brakes, creating toxic road sediment. Additionally, high energy consumption and temperatures in asphalt mixtures cause inorganic and greenhouse gas emissions, which increase carbon footprints.  

Asphalt requires work to keep it operational and often needs patching or complete replacement. Traditional highways also lend themselves to dangerous accidents, vehicle breakdowns, and weather-related issues that frequently present risks to drivers.

Solar Roadways

The three layers of solar roads can generate clean energy, reduce the frequency of road maintenance and repairs, and protect the environment.

Using sunlight, these solar roadways generate immense energy to power LED road indicators and lane lights embedded in the road. According to the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment, solar roads last, on average, 21 years before replacement, saving communities money that usually goes toward frequent traditional road repairs. 

Solar roads are an investment, but they offer better cost-savings, more convenience, and the use of cleaner energy than asphalt roads. 

Safety Features of Solar Roadways 

Solar roadways resolve many existing safety problems of traditional road infrastructure, providing the potential to reenvision highway systems. LED light integration directly into road surfaces improves driver visibility with clear, bright road markings and warnings. This safety feature contributes to lower pollution by promoting a smoother traffic flow and reducing the risk of accidents.

Heated solar panels on roads make driving safer, especially for people in areas prone to ice and snow. According to the Department of Transportation, 70% of America’s roads are in snowy regions, and 24% of weather-related accidents happen on slushy, snowy, or icy pavements. Solar roads’ heated panels will melt much of that precipitation before it builds up on roads and causes accidents.

Enhancing Roadside Assistance and Emergency Services 

barren san bernardino mountains seen from highway
Photo by Soly Moses on Pexels.com

Solar roads may also improve roadside assistance and emergency services. Information about road conditions, accidents, and breakdowns is sent to relevant authorities in real time through embedded technologies, such as LED lights and sensors. 

Sensors can detect road incidents or hazardous road conditions and transmit that information instantaneously, which leads to quicker emergency response times and better incident management. In-car technology, such as paired smartphones and advanced driver assistance systems like forward collision warnings, also provide data for authorities to address or prevent accidents.

LED lights in solar roads are also critical in enhancing driver safety. LEDs are cost-effective and environmentally friendly, providing drivers with dynamic road markings that make driving more intuitive. Those lights can also power other safety features, such as pedestrian crossings,  warning signs, and street lights, leading to improved levels of safety in communities.

Essential Items for Drivers During an Incident

While solar roads offer more safety features than traditional roads, drivers should always prepare for an accident or emergency. Some essential items to have for car maintenance and repair in your vehicle include:

  • Spare tire
  • Jumper cables
  • A tire pressure gauge
  • Emergency roadside and repair contact information
  • First-aid kit

Whether you’re driving on concrete, asphalt, or solar roads, these items are necessary to stay safe during an accident or breakdown.

Saving Energy and Lives with Solar Roads

Solar roads can change how people design, manage, and use roadways. By combining solar energy with cutting-edge technologies, these roads have the potential to make highways safer and environmentally sustainable. As the plans for more solar roadways continue and more countries invest in this technology, there may soon be a shift toward safer and greener highways worldwide.

  • Katie Brenneman

    Katie Brenneman is a passionate writer specializing in sustainability, mental health, education, and fitness-related content. She is a graduate of UCR where she discovered her love for health, eco-friendly lifestyles, and writing. When she isn't article brainstorming, you can find her with her nose buried in a book or hiking with her dog, Charlie. To connect with Katie, you can follow her on Twitter.

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