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On November 12th, hundreds of biking enthusiasts in the Amsterdam suburbs of Krommenie and Wormerveer hopped onto their two-wheelers, to test out SolaRoad, the world's first solar bike path. The 100-meter test project is the result of a collaboration between the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research (TNO), local authorities and a consortium of Dutch companies.
Building a usable path that can absorb electricity was not an easy endeavor. That's because unlike solar panels that can be placed on rooftops and forgotten, bike paths are used daily. The engineers therefore had to devise a way to make it both translucent and durable, not to mention, skid-resistant.
While it took a few years, TNO was able to come up with a feasible solution. They built massive 2.5 by 3.5 meter (8 feet by 11.5 feet) concrete LEGO-like modules with an integrated layer of crystalline silicone solar cells. In order to ensure that the cells could catch the sun's rays, the tiles were covered with a layer of heavy-duty glass. An additional translucent plastic layer ensured that the path was skid-resistant.
According to the engineers, this small stretch of the bike path only one side of which has the solar panels, will be able to harness enough energy to fulfill the annual electricity demands of at least two homes. Though that is 30% less than what could be generated by similar number of solar panels that are affixed at an angle on rooftops, TNO's Sten de Wit says that solar roadways make perfect sense for the Netherlands.
That's because while the country does not have room to build additional power plants to fulfill its growing energy needs, it does have 87,000 miles of roadways that can be used to harness the sun's energy! The one hurdle to widespread deployment is the expense - just this tiny stretch of solar bike path cost an astounding $3.7 mm USD to build!
However, Sten believes that as solar cells get increasingly cheaper and more efficient, future projects will not cost as much. The government officials certainly seem to agree and are planning to install the technology beneath 20% of the country's roadways, if SolaRoad withstands the extensive three-year testing period.
Oddly enough, this was not the only 'solar' road opened in Netherlands that week. On November 13th, to mark the beginning of the Vincent Van Gogh 2015 International theme year, Dutch innovator Daan Roosegaarde unveiled the Van Gogh-Roosegaarde cycle path. Inspired by the post impressionist artist's 'Starry Night' painting, the 600-meter asphalt path that runs along Van Gogh heritage locations in the Dutch Province of Brabant, is embedded with colored pebbles, that absorb and store solar energy during the day and release it at night. The result is a pathway that is as beautiful as Van Gogh's famous painting!
This magical road is the artist's second collaboration with Heijman's infrastructure. In 2013, the two unveiled the world's first 'smart highway' - a dark stretch of road that is infused with solar energy absorbing photo-luminescent powder that lights up at night, making it easier for drivers to see, especially in winter when the roads are often icy.
Outside of the Netherlands, the enthusiasm for energy-generating and energy-saving pathways is just as strong. UK-based Pro-Teq recently released a product that allows public pathways to illuminate with a star-like glow at night. In the U.S., a project called Solar Roadways raised $2.2 million this past summer, to implement LED lights and heating elements into road panels. With these various projects underway, the future of our roadways certainly appears to be bright!
Resources: extremetech.com, inhabit.com, solaroad.com, npr.org,cbc.ca