Yves here. Solar roads sound too “gee whiz” to work. But it would be terrific if they did. Readers?
By Michael McDonald an assistant professor of finance and a frequent consultant to companies regarding capital structure decisions and investments. Originally published at OilPrice
Roads have been mostly the same for a thousand years. Different types of vehicles traveled on them, and the surfaces might have been made with different materials, but the basic function of a road has been the same since the Romans built the world’s first highways. All that might be about to change.
Building on the Climate Accord reached in Paris last December, France’s minister of Ecology and Energy recently announced that it will pave 621 miles of road with solar panels over the next five years. The goal of the project is to provide enough energy to power homes for 5 million people – roughly 10 percent of the country’s population.
The project is called the Wattway and is going to be a collaboration between French road builder Colas and the National Institute of Solar Energy. The remarkable thing about the project is that the 1,000 km of road will be paved with solar panels embedded into the road itself. The panels are about a quarter of an inch thick and supposed to be able to withstand highway traffic without making roads more slippery.
There are a couple of other projects that are similar in concept including a 229 foot bike path in the Netherlands that is using a similar principle and a research-stage project in Idaho involving the research and development of solar panels for use in road applications in the future. Needless to say, neither of these projects is in any way comparable to paving more than 600 miles of road with panels. France’s effort is truly unparalleled.
There are a lot of skeptics of the French project, and just because it is an ambitious large scale effort does not mean France’s efforts will be successful. Yet in terms of taking a big risk with potential to change to way the world looks at one of the most basic transportation conduits, France’s effort is amazing. Colas says that 215 square feet of panels will be enough to power a single French home, with each kilometer of roadway supporting the energy needs of 5,000 houses.
The economics of the project will need to be markedly better than the Netherlands experiment before any of this effort makes sense in the future though. In the Netherlands, the 229 foot bike path cost $3.7 million to build and generated roughly $2,000 worth of electricity in its first year. At that rate of return, France’s project would be a complete fiasco. With that said, France is using entirely different technology, and it is impossible to project what the cost of the project might be. The Netherland’s bike path was around 1,000 square feet which means it cost roughly $3,700 per foot to install. The French project is a little more than 78.5 million square feet, so at the same cost per foot, the 620 miles of road would cost an unaffordable $290 billion. Obviously the economics for France will have to change drastically versus the Netherlands project for the project to ever get past the announcement stage.
There are a whole host of additional unanswered questions to be considered from what will happen when the solar panels get dirty or covered in snow to the issue of replacing panels that die over time and the expected useful life of the road. None of these questions have been answered yet, but the cost of the road is one of the first issues that will need to be settled. At this point trial portions of road are being laid out though, and financing plans for the project are being considered.