France unveiled the world's first solar road

World’s first solar road powers French town

Image credit: Reuters

A one-kilometre stretch of road covered with solar panels has been inaugurated in the French town of Tourouvre that will power local streetlights.

Described as the world’s first solar highway, or Wattway, the road comprises of 2,800 square metres of resin-coated solar panels. France’s Environment Minister Segolene Royal, who attended the opening, explained that using road surface to generate electricity means that no extra land needs to be covered with unsightly panels.

France plans to roll out the technology on a large scale in western Brittany and southern Marseille within the next four years and is using the Tourouvre Wattway as a test bed to make sure that the panels survive in traffic. Some 2,000 cars travel over the panels manufactured by French engineering firm Colas including heavy goods vehicles.

Germany and the Netherlands are also exploring the idea of covering road surfaces with solar panels.

Research suggests that most roads are only being actively used by cars 20 per cent of the time, which means their surface is not shaded for the majority of the day.

Colas estimates that covering only a quarter of France’s roads with photovoltaic cells could make the country energy independent.

The main issue is the ruggedness of the solar panels, which would be subject not only to traffic but also to all types of weather.

Last year, Dutch capital Amsterdam opened a 70m-long section of a cycling lane covered with solar panels. Some damage to the technology has been reported in the first year of operation, although the company behind the project said it was easily repairable.

Another drawback of using solar panels on the road is the reduced efficiency in the flat position. Photovoltaics are most efficient when tilted towards the sun such as on slanted rooftops.

Colas said it costs about €17 to generate a kilowatt of energy using the Wattway. A traditional solar installation achieves the same at €1.30. However, the company hopes to be able to make the technology cost competitive by 2020.

The project received a state subsidy of €5 million. The technology was first trialled on a smaller scale on four parking lots.

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