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Solar-Powered Smart Roads: A Glimpse of Walking on Sunshine

By Adaobi Rhema Oguejiofor

For several years, engineers, innovators and scientists have been on a search for ways to answer the question of what a road or motorway is good for other than the obviously known use, which is to enable driving and transportation. As the field of transportation infrastructure is going through a significant shift in this age of innovation and environmental awareness, these scientists and innovators have come up with the idea that roads can also serve as a means of generating clean energy through harnessing power from the sun.

Solar-powered smart roads are rapidly developing as a game-changing response to the problems that face contemporary civilization. They are a groundbreaking innovation that integrate long-lasting solar panels, involving replacing the tarmac and paving slabs that roads and pavements are currently made from, with solar panels to capture the sunlight into road surfaces, which could then provide electricity to power homes, businesses, and street lighting. Smart roads driven by solar energy are a great example of how sustainability and technology can coexist in the field of transportation infrastructure.

These solar panels have the capacity to withstand traffic and weather conditions while capturing energy from the sun in order to produce electricity, which can power various applications, from streetlights to homes. Although still in early development, the potential for these roads to revolutionize urban sustainability is immense as it holds the promise to transform energy generation.

By utilizing the capabilities of cutting-edge technology and the power of the sun, these roads represent a paradigm shift in the way people use and think about transportation systems. As a result of this, there is a road network that is smarter, greener, and more effective having the ability to transform transportation in the future, improve energy sustainability, and pave the way for a cleaner, smarter, and more connected society.

This innovative proposal combines two essential components of contemporary infrastructure like solar energy and sophisticated sensors, as well as the possibility of producing roads that will not only make mobility easier but also help provide clean energy and improve safety.

Sample solar-powered roads have been built in several countries including France, Netherlands, China and the United States of America (USA) all with slightly different systems. But unfortunately, none of these test/sample roads have been successful in producing electricity and providing a safe road surface so far. In 2014, the concept of solar powered photovoltaic road panels that could collect sunlight and convert it into useable energy went viral when an Idaho-based company Solar Roadways brought up the idea as a solution to the global energy crisis. The company suggested developing solar-powered panels in order to form smart roads, highways and parking lots. These solar roadways would theoretically produce electricity while providing other smart features for the cars and trucks that drove on them.

Some features of Solar-powered smart roads include, solar panels. These are photovoltaic panels that are firmly affixed to the surface of the road serving as the brains of solar-powered smart highways. These panels, which are frequently constructed of tough, tempered glass, are meant to bear the weight of automobiles while also absorbing sunlight and generating power. Large expanses of asphalt are converted into power-generating assets using this new method, which lowers the carbon footprint of transportation networks and promotes the production of renewable energy.

 Another feature is a network of intelligent sensors, which is installed on solar highways for real-time data collection and transmission. These sensors can keep an eye on the condition of the roads, and the movement of the vehicles, and even spot and notify possible dangers like ice, standing water, or debris. This increases safety and enable more effective traffic by continually providing this data to centralized control systems.

According to Solar Roadways, the benefits of their solar roads, if it is successful, would be more than just the production of clean energy. Among the benefits is that the roads would provide enough heat to melt off snow and ice and would use LEDs for lighting to warn about road obstructions. Solar roadways could also charge electric cars through inductive charging, which means that Electric Vehicles (EVs) would be charged just by driving on the solar roads.

The capability of solar-powered smart roadways to produce clean energy is their greatest benefit. The roads utilize solar energy to balance conventional energy sources, thereby lowering greenhouse gas emissions. The electricity produced can also be utilized to power adjacent infrastructure, be sent into the grid, or be stored for later use, aiding in the transition to sustainable energy sources and ultimately, net-zero.

Another major benefit is that, solar roadways have the potential to drastically reduce maintenance costs. This is because the integrated solar panels are built to survive, so there is less need for periodic resurfacing convention. Real-time sensor data also enables preventive maintenance by correcting problems before they even develop into significant traffic concerns.

These roads also consist of intelligent sensors, which are essential to improving and increasing traffic safety. Smart road signs or independent cars themselves can be used to notify drivers of hazardous circumstances like black ice or low vision. Lives can be saved and accidents avoided because of this real-time input. It also provides enhanced traffic management as data about traffic flow and road conditions are continuously collected by solar roadways. Routes and traffic lights can then be dynamically changed to reduce congestion and boost overall transportation effectiveness. This benefit is highly important in overcrowded metropolitan environments. Solar roads increase safety and efficiency while also lowering the environmental effect of transportation systems as a result of the use of sophisticated sensors and solar energy.

They serve as a brilliant illustration of how infrastructure can play a crucial part in defining a greener, smarter, and more connected future as the world continues to look for new solutions to the ever changing transportation demands.

Despite the many benefits of solar roadways, the implementation at scale is quite a challenge. For instance, since solar roadways would lie flat on the ground, they would not be ideal for maximizing their exposure to direct sunlight. Normally, on a regular solar farm, the panels are angled towards the sun to maximize efficiency, and even at that, the typical solar panel can only use about 20 per cent of the energy that the sun produces. It would be more efficient to run the solar panels alongside the road rather than on top of it.

Creating solar roadways that can withstand heavy vehicle pressure while still letting in sunlight has been another difficult task. There are also safety and noise concerns. And the LEDs, which would act as traffic lines and obstruction warnings, are difficult to see during the day. Solar roadways are also incredibly expensive compared to regular old pavement.

In all, solar-powered roadways are an intriguing concept, which have the ability to transform the global transportation systems but are still under development. While they may not be a practical replacement for all traditional roads, they could someday be a valuable technology with the immense potential it possesses.

Companies like Solar Roadways are working on overcoming the technical and economic challenges these technology faces as further research and advancements are needed to make solar roads a practical and cost-effective solution. However, the potential benefits are undeniable and as the technology matures, solar roadways could revolutionize global infrastructure and lead the way to a more sustainable future.