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September 1, 2015 | Dutch Build a Brighter Future with Solar Roads and Walls

The Dutch have been some of the leading innovators in designing and implementing unique solar energy solutions. In recent years, they’ve worked to create solar energy units that go beyond the standard rooftop or remote farm panels that simply harvest the light of the sun and turn it into clean, renewable energy. They’ve focused on creating solar units that can actually become a part of the urban landscape, in the form of bike paths, roads, and walls.

Solar Bike Paths

In 2014, Science Alert reported that a Dutch company, called Solaroad, installed a solar bike path in the town of Krommenie, north of Amsterdam. The solar panels, which are sandwiched between layers of glass, silicon rubber, and concrete, are strong enough to support the weight of a 12 metric-ton truck without being damaged. Each panel is attached to a smart meter that then channels the electricity to either street lights or directly into the power grid. After six months of preliminary testing, the 70-meter bike path has generated 3,000 kWh, enough to provide electricity to a small European household.

The stress test of having 150,000 bicyclists riding over the path throughout the 6-month trial has proven that this solar concept is promising. Despite the rigorous testing and use of the path, the only problem that has cropped up is that a section of the coating used to provide grip to the surface has become delaminated due to fluctuations in temperature. Solaroad’s engineers are working to fix the problem.

If the idea takes off, one could see a future in which flat surfaces, such as city streets, sidewalks, and bike paths, double as solar collectors. Considering the amount of surface area that exists within a city, the concept represents an astonishing opportunity to create basic urban infrastructure that can not only be used for driving, biking or walking, but that can also be used to fulfill a part of a city’s energy needs. Though some challenges remain before the idea can be rolled out on a large scale, this technology could revolutionize the way the world builds their cities.

Solar Walls

For years, researchers in the Netherlands have also been working to create windows that double as solar collectors, channeling light toward tiny solar panels around the edges. Dr. Michael Debije, a professor at the Eindhoven University of Technology, is leading a project that takes this idea to the next level and uses it to create what is, in effect, a solar wall.

Debije and his team have created a wall of colored panels along the A2 Highway near Den Bosch, Netherlands. The wall serves the dual purpose of providing a barrier against highway noise (typically accomplished using unsightly concrete walls), while also collecting solar energy.

The technology used by the colored panels is a little different from the standard photovoltaic panel. These more aesthetically-pleasing red, yellow, and translucent solar panels use a technology called luminescent solar concentrators, which capture different wavelengths of light. The light is then channeled to solar cells around the edges of the panels and transformed into electricity.

The system is not quite as efficient as standard PV cells. The LSC panels get a four to eight percent efficiency rating, compared to the 13 to 15 percent that the standard solar panels get. The plastic used for the LSC units, however, is far cheaper than the silicon that goes into PV panels. The colored solar panels are also more attractive than the typical units you see covering buildings and fields.

The test of the solar wall is set to continue through early summer 2016, by which time Debije and his team of researchers should have a better idea of how much power the LSC panels are capable of generating under a variety of weather conditions. If the technology proves to be promising, more solar walls could rise.

Debije imagines this technology being used in all kinds of public places, like transit stations, park benches, and outdoor concert stages, providing decorative beauty, as well as helping to generate clean electricity for the city.

In truth, the applications for these new solar technologies are limited only by the imagination.