The Future of Solar Pathways

In the world of the Tangle, most mass transit, goods and long-distance transport is by air, in the battery-powered ‘pods’ (more on this later). We can imagine a world where there is very little traffic on the ground, but pathways are still needed for pedestrian and low-level traffic. Ground transport in the Tangle's speculative future includes bicycles, electric scooters, and tiny, low flying hovers for one or two people powered by the pathways they move along. I mention solar pathways a few times as the main roadway system of the near future. The technology I imagined is in fact already in existence, with a number of pilot developments in progress.

One of the first commercial systems was developed in France and hasn’t been as successful as hoped. A one-kilometre length of road, named Wattway, opened in 2016 and consisted of toughened PV panels. It was designed to actually produce power, cost around €5million and was generating less than half its expected output. While the road was able to generate enough power to keep the streetlights on in a small village, the project was unable to make a return on its investment. One of the problems was that the road was built in Caen, Normandy which receives just forty-four days of sunshine a year. Further, the panels were getting covered in rotting leaves, and a few thunderstorms damaged a large stretch of the panels. Natural issues aside, panels placed flat on a standard road surface are not at the optimum tilt angle to capture sunlight, particularly in areas of already low sunlight!

A company in the US called Solar Roadways is producing road tiles that would be placed in, across or alongside asphalt roads and footpaths. The tiles contain LED lights that create signage. They also have microprocessors which means they can communicate with each other, with vehicles, and with a central control station. The company has ambitious plans for installation across the motorways of America, with the ultimate goal of constant charging for electric vehicles, but they are starting trials in driveways and parking lots. They are also promoting the tiles’ initial use in plazas, on bike and pedestrian paths and playgrounds.

Image: Solar Roadways

The current limitation on the development of solar pathway technology is in the resilience of the panels (low) and cost (high). While the technology improves exponentially ach year, it is more likely that photovaic panels for a Solar Roadways system will be embedded individually or in clusters within much cheaper asphalt or concrete; working with the current system rather than replacing it. There are far more efficient ways of producing power from solar than laying PV cells flat on a road. Rather than expecting pathways to produce a lot of energy, it’s more likely that an integrated system will be implemented widely for secondary uses such as lighting, signage and low-level power requirements.

This may be enhanced even more by Kinetic Energy technology. A British company called Pavegen has installations around the world with their kinetic tiles. The weight of pedestrian footsteps compresses electromagnetic generators underneath the tiles, producing 2-4 joules of electrical energy per step. The power is transferred to pathway lighting, advertisements, interactive displays and information panels, making for an amazing sensory experience.

Image: Pavegen

At this time, both solar and kinetic energy pathways are exciting and fun, but not a real commercial prospect. Which ever way the technology moves, however, I believe we will start seeing more of these technologies in real life within the decade.

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