6 Reasons Solar Panel Roads Will Not Happen Soon
A few times every year, news of a new product or method that promises to solve humanity’s energy problems seems to come about. Some of these ideas have some serious future potential, as in the case of nuclear fusion and all the associated ongoing research. The idea of solar roads, unfortunately, is not something that would be feasible, or even realistically possible at this time.
The general public may think of solar roads as a brilliant, economical idea, that takes existing infrastructure and makes better use of it. But only the true techies understand the unlikeliness of a project like this once you actually look at the technology involved to pull off such an achievement. Sure, there may be some neat renderings of solar roads, and cool looking designs – but in reality, it is a much flawed idea.
So why would solar roads not be ideal?
If you think about it, we really do have enormous surfaces crying out to be used for something other than transport. But, after years of personal experience in the home photovoltaic market, I can assure you that if a roof poses a number of technical problems, solar roads would be infinitely more complicated to pursue. Here are a few issues I have come up with to get you thinking:
Mechanical stress: A reason modern solar PV panels have made strides in efficiency of power conversion, is because they consist of some basic materials. These include standardized square cells, a protective glass layer, a flimsy back, a junction box, and an aluminum frame to keep everything in shape. All this is built to be very cheap to produce and maintain – with very basic parts for easy and cheap maintenance. This build quality is nowhere near anything we would need to use for massive load-bearing pavement applications. Imagine the rigidity required for loads of heavy trucks traveling at high speeds, and the sealing required for watertight use under severe heat, rain, snow or abrasion conditions. We are talking Iron Man suit standards!
Inverters and cabling: The beautiful graphics of solar roads you see plastered all over the internet conceal the fact that solar PV requires cables, string, and micro inverters to achieve compatibility with the grid. Like the panels, these essential components will need spaces to stay ventilated, and should be kept dry and accessible for servicing and repairs. If New York City has hardly started installing touch information panels for the Metro, who would make the decision to rip the city apart to install all the solar road equipment? Not saying NYC will be the first to try solar roads, just pointing out that cities seem have other higher priority projects that take less effort than installing a solar road system.
Efficiency: Solar panels give us the best power output when their surface is facing to the sun. This is why latitude calculations are so important during installation, and why we sometimes choose to mount solar panels on trackers. Solar roads would be good at or near the equator, but anywhere else all this attention to detail goes out the window and we are stuck with huge losses.
Shadows: The output of a solar panel is very dependent on a couple variables, the two biggest are shadows and obstructions. It wouldn’t be easy to work around shadows from buildings, and with very stringent mechanical specifications we cannot ensure that cells would have good access to the available light at optimal times of the day. Now, add traffic to the roads, and you’ll have a large amount of road covered by vehicles, which would further decrease from the usefulness of this idea.
Reliability, theft, vandalism: Since theft is common in well protected solar parks, think of the trouble that would be caused at street level. Cables, inverters, and other solar gear would instantly become the hottest black market products; just try to fathom the necessary measures in remote areas. If you put aside the potential for vandalism, keep in mind the level of organization required for security, support and maintenance. All this would come at quite the cost. The designs I have seen for these solar road systems show the setup to be similar to a puzzle – very modular and flexible. But, say that a critical piece of the puzzle is removed or damaged – you would then have an unreliable system.
Cost: Call me cynical, but cost is the reason we have not all rushed to buy a Tesla S. It always seems to come down to price comparisons, and parity with established energy sources. Solar PV is quickly becoming very competitive, mostly because of the way it is made and installed. Cost-wise, installing solar roads is like trying to fit all cars with bullet-proof glass. Nice to have, but overall unnecessary, heavy, and super expensive!
Overall, lets all keep in mind that we are not running out of suitable locations for solar installations atop more suitable locations. For now, those locations seem to be the best place to build solar panel arrays.
At this time, my above points seem to show that solar roads are quite unlikely, and a very expensive idea. Long before every roof is covered with PV panels, we run into problems of efficient energy distribution and cost efficient storage. That is why the intelligent electrical network has become a buzz word, and why massive scale energy storage will be a critical part of our future energy planning.
Our main issue is not how and where to produce energy from the sun – but what to do with it. Keep that in mind the next time you see another crazy solar panel idea.
© 2014, Dimitrios Matsoulis. All rights reserved.