France may soon be the world’s leader in solar-powered roadways. Ségolène Royal, the country’s minister of ecology, announced a plan last month to pave more than 600 miles of French roads with photovoltaic panels, beginning this spring. The project will be completed over the next five years.
Made by Colas, a construction company that has been working on the technology for five years, the photovoltaic tiles are designed to stay warm enough to prevent ice from forming on top of them, and to withstand the weight of cars. According to the French plan, 1 kilometer of solar road (.6 miles) could power a town of 5000 people for a year. Should it work, the solar road network would provide 8 percent of the country’s population with electricity.
Some critics argue that solar roads will be too expensive to be worthwhile on a large scale, so France’s project will provide a more definitive test of the technology’s capabilities (or drawbacks). The photovoltaic cells will have to hold up under the impact of heavy traffic (including trucks) and remain safe in winter conditions.
France is not the first country to invest in solar roads, but it would be the first to do so for vehicular highways. A U.S. solar road project—funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation and more than $2 million raised on Indiegogo—is currently in the research phase, but has not begun a pilot test yet. South Korea and the Netherlands, on the other hand, are both experimenting with solar panels installed on bike lanes. Korea’s are installed on a structure on top of the bike lane, shading the cyclists below, while the Dutch solar panels are buried within the bike path itself. In 2015, the 328-foot-long Dutch pilot was able to generate enough power to run three homes for a year.
All images courtesy Colas.