There’s a good chance that most people working in (or with an interest in) the utilities industry have heard about the solar road project recently announced in France.
If you haven’t, the key information you should know is that the French government plans to cover 1,000km of roads with solar panels in the next five years. If successful, the project could provide enough energy for 8% of the French population, or over 5 million people.
It might seem like a far-fetched pipe dream, but the initiative, which is called Wattway, has actually been in the works for more than 5 years as a partnership between Colas, a global leader in transport infrastructure and the French National Solar Energy Institute.
The plan proposes attaching thin panels to the existing road surface. Each strip is seven millimetres thick, and the material is both waterproof and weatherproof. Most importantly, the surface is still durable enough to withstand heavy road traffic. You can read more about it here.
All change, how it will disrupt the Centralised Energy grid.
Currently, the power grid is based on centralised power stations. Distribution of power is handled through transmission lines (overhead and underground), relay stations, and transformers. When a line goes down, everyone on the wrong end of that line loses power until the damage is repaired. If a power station goes down, an entire section of the country goes dark.
What a solar road has the possibility to do is break up this centralised network by effectively becoming the grid for surrounding areas, generating and distributing locally and cutting down on significant energy loss through long-distance distribution.
By taking the power (pun intended) away from the major stations, a segmented network is less likely to severely impact a significant amount of customers in the event of a blackout.
Power interruptions cost the American economy about $80 billion each year.
It also spells good news for isolated regions which are often at a high risk of being cut off completely in a power outage. By supporting these areas with a resilient grid there is a greater opportunity to enable locations in the Australian outback or remote parts of New Zealand to become self-sustainable or even industrial hubs.
Of course, it would also drive the move away from a reliance on fossil fuels and supports the global fossil-fuel phase-out movement to reduce air pollution, mining tragedies and greenhouse gas emissions.
Energy infrastructure across the globe has so far remained largely unchanged over recent decades and as the need for power increases and its use becomes more diverse, new approaches must be considered.
Instead of continuing to repair an archaic system of centralised power stations and distribution methods, an overhaul, that starts with 1,000km of road, can pave the way (yes I am on a pun roll) for utilities to address pressing needs and deliver a service that exceeds customer expectations.
For many utilities, the issue of cost will be one they highlight as a potential barrier but with the French government subsidising upwards of $200million of the project through increased petrol taxes, forming a partnership with local or central government could hold the key to unlocking a future where solar roads lead the way.
What do we think of the potential of solar roads?
Could this replace traditional power stations if it proves successful?
Can Utilities simply wait for their businesses to be disrupted or do they need to act first?
Could this really be adopted in Australia or NZ?