France may be on the verge of an environmental revolution with the country's planned 1,000-kilometre solar panel road, the Wattway.
French infrastructure firm Colas recently won a "Climate Solutions Award" at the COP21 UN Climate Change conference for their Wattway project, developed in partnership with the French National Institute of Solar Energy.
The roadway is established by laying seven-mm-thick polycrystalline silicon solar panel material atop preexisting roads. And that's it. The panels are strong enough to withstand heavy transport trucks, are skid-resistant to reduce car accidents and each kilometre can produce enough photovoltaic electricity for 5,000 people, not including heating and based on 1,000 sun-hours per year.
Taken down to a personal level, that's one household powered for every four metres of Wattway, or less than the length of a mid-size car.
With 1,000 kilometres planned over the next five years, "the maximum effect of the program, if successful, could be to furnish five million people with electricity, or about eight per cent of the French population," said French minister of ecology and energy Ségolène Royal according to Global Construction Review.
The project emerged from a 2005 Colas initiative to "broaden the use of roads." According to a press release, engineer Jean-Luc Gautier realized that "roads spend 90 per cent of their time just looking up into the sky. When the sun shines, they are of course exposed to its rays. It's an ideal surface area for energy applications."
Gautier began experimenting in his garage back in 2010 before the company went all in on the project to figure out how to make a fragile solar panel durable enough to drive on. Thanks to a "multilayer substrate composed of resins and polymers," the company says their high-yield solar panels "can be used on all types of road infrastructure (roads, highways, parking lots, bike paths, etc.)."
Eco-Watch notes that the "solar concept isn't new," pointing out the 230-foot SolaRoad bike path in the Netherlands that's been around since November 2014 and is "already generating more power than expected." As well, they mention the Idaho-based Solar Roadways project, which is currently being crowd-funded.
Still, these efforts hardly compare to the scale of the French initiative which, if successful, could eventually be rolled out across the globe. Colas also hopes this is "paving the way to intelligent roads" which would improve traffic management, charge electric vehicles, eliminate black ice and host self-driving cars.
Forbes reports that "there's no indication, right now, of which roadways will actually be covered with Wattway, or of how much exactly the project will cost." However, the French government has announced that installation tests are scheduled to begin this spring and will be at least partly funded by increasing taxes on gas.
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