Following on from last year’s historic climate change deal, in which 195 nations promised to mitigate man-made greenhouse gas emissions, France has demonstrated that it is beginning to pull its weight. The French government has just announced that it will pave 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) of road with durable, photovoltaic panels, which will provide solar energy to 5 million people across the republic, according to Global Construction Review.
This project, which will take five years to complete, is a collaboration between French road and infrastructural construction company Colas and the French National Institute of Solar Energy. This will be the very first time solar panels will be installed on public roads to this extent, and it will aim to supply renewable energy to eight percent of France’s total population.
The panels themselves aren’t just run-of-the-mill solar cells. They are the result of cutting-edge technology, with each 7-millimeter-thick (0.3 inch), 15-centimeter-long (5.9 inch) panel made from a thin film of polycrystalline silicon, each of which will be coated in a strengthening resin.
This durable structure means that cars of all shapes and sizes can drive over them without causing any damage to either the cells or vehicles. In fact, they’ve been shown to survive one million truck tire passes without a scratch of damage.
They are weatherproof, waterproof, and can adapt to rapidly changing local temperatures. As these cells can be simply placed across existing roads, the pre-existing infrastructure will not need to be ripped up or modified in any way, making them remarkably cost-effective.
Estimates based on testing suggest this patented panel design, Wattway, lasts as long as conventional pavement, which is roughly 10 years. Sections of road that aren’t heavily trafficked, such as parking lots, will let them last up to 20 years. One notable downside is that they are slightly less efficient at capturing solar energy and transforming it into electricity than conventional photovoltaic panels; the official website states that they have a 15 percent yield (energy conversion rate) compared to an industry standard 18-19 percent.
Nevertheless, just 4.5 meters (14.8 feet) of these Wattway cells on a French road is enough to satisfy one household’s electricity needs, apart from heating. One kilometer (0.62 miles) would be enough to power a settlement of 5,000 people.
Solar power demand has surged in recent years, thanks to numerous technological advances and its rapidly falling production costs. One of the most notable developments in this field is taking place in Morocco, where a revolutionary new concentrated solar power plant, entering its final construction stages, can be found. By 2017, it will be able to power the entire region, 24 hours a day, using “stored” sunlight.
There has been some skepticism levelled at this solar roadways scheme, however. There hasn’t been any concrete information as to how much this project will cost, although Ségolène Royal, France’s minister of ecology and energy, is confident the funds will be there. She has said that up to 300 million euros ($440 million) will be raised by petrol taxes which will go towards paying for infrastructural improvements including road solarizing.
Connecting these solar panels to the electricity grid is also another issue that will need to be addressed, and as the solar panels can only be installed by hand, the installation process is currently quite slow.