In retrospect, Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” is downright prescient. Since her song hit the charts in 1970, we’ve not only paved parking lots, but highways, roads, and interstates as well. Our paved Paradise not only affects the water table and causes problems for large bodies of water, it contributes to imbalances in the carbon cycle that affect our climate. The roads and parking lots are here to stay, but what if we could do something positive with all that asphalt – something that makes a contribution to our renewable energy goals?
On November 12, 2014, the town of Krommenie — located in the Netherlands — opened 230 feet (70 meters) of the world’s first solar-paved bike path. The SolaRoad project is the brainchild of TNO, a Dutch research institute. Their goal is to put the 21,748 miles (35,000 km) of bike lanes in the Netherlands to an additional productive use. The bike path is constructed with solar cells that will generate solar power. With current technology, the solar cells in the pavement generate only 70% as much energy as traditional solar cells, but this is just the start. TNO intends to continue work on bike paths in the Netherlands with an eye on the 20% of the Netherland’s nearly 88,000 miles (140,000 km) of paved roadways that have the potential for SolaRoad technology. Since paved surfaces have not traditionally been used to generate solar energy, any gains will be a bonus.
While the Netherlands is unarguably a bike-friendly country, the US tends to favor the automobile. If even 20% of the 40.9 million miles (65.8 million km) of paved roadways in the US could be used to generate solar power, significant incremental amounts of energy would be created. This energy, combined with solar production from other paved surfaces such as parking lots, could be used to power the infrastructure and add power to the grid. If roads in the future were oriented to maximize solar energy production, and parking lots for airports and stadiums were constructed with a similar view toward renewable energy, the passive contribution from these sources would join wind and tide power as potential incremental sources of renewable energy.
After years of living with the downside of our penchant for paving, it’s nice to imagine the possibility that paved surfaces in the future could actually ease our current energy and climate predicaments. By building solar cell technology into the surfaces themselves, we would not only meet the need for efficient transportation and adequate parking, but also enhance the productivity of those surfaces with the addition of a value added attribute.
So here’s to a win-win all around. Here’s to the time when our highways and streets provide the energy needed for streetlights, traffic lights, and power for municipal buildings. Here’s to the time when our parking lots charge our cars, power our streetlights, and keep our homes and schools well lit and climate-controlled—without the introduction of additional burdens on our planet.
Gina Hagler is a freelance writer and published author who covers science, technology, health, climate change, bubbles, and species survival–among other topics. She is a member of the National Association of Science Writers (NASW) and the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA). You’ll find more of her work at ginahagler.com