By Scott Huntington
Just over a year ago, people from all around the world turned their attention to Krommenie, Netherlands, as it opened a high-tech bike path to travelers.
Dubbed the SolaRoad, the path is special because one of its two lanes is equipped with solar panels that can feed energy back to the grid. Although the path spans less than 250 feet in length, developers hoped it would be able to produce enough annual energy to power homes. Now that it’s been open for a full year, it’s time to look at what worked and what didn’t.
The path passes a major test
After one year, researchers are in an educated position to say whether the SolaRoad was everything green-minded people hoped it would be. Fortunately, the path exceeded expectations even in its early stages. After it had only been operating for six months, the path attracted more than 150,000 riders, and more importantly, generated more than 3,000 kilowatt-hours of energy. That’s enough to power a home for a year.
Testing and improvements are ongoing
As you may have expected due to the pioneering nature of this path, the SolaRoad had some problems despite its impressive results. In fact, a mishap occurred only a month after the SolaRoad was open. Poor weather conditions caused its top layer to break off, and a portion of the path had to be shut down. That happened even though the materials were rigorously tested in a laboratory beforehand to ensure they were roadworthy. This brings up some pretty hefty concerns about how these roads would eventually handle cars, if they were breaking on a bike path.
Eventually, engineers were able to come up with a material that would hold up to the weather, and the SolaRoad opened in entirety again. Because the path is in the middle of a three-year testing cycle, it’s possible other unexpected challenges will arise later on that will need to be dealt with.
Riders have adapted to the technology well
As mentioned above, more than 150,000 bikers have already chosen to travel over the SolaRoad. Engineers also clarified that riders hardly seem to notice anything different about the path’s surface. As a result, researchers agree the public has smoothly adopted the technology.
It makes sense that the SolaRoad was launched in the Netherlands. Cycling is already a very popular activity there, and it’s known to be very safe.
However, the same can’t be said in terms of bike use in the United States. Statistically, only 1 percent of trips are taken by bicycle. Additionally, there is often confusion about bike laws, and it doesn’t take to see cars driving in the bike lanes, or at least ignoring the often-forgotten law of giving a bicyclist a minimum of three feet of space. It will be interesting to see the reaction if a solar bike path ends up in the U.S.
Energy generation worth a closer look
Initially, the fact that the SolaRoad has generated enough energy to handle a household’s needs in just six months seems impressive. However, some critics have urged people to develop an alternative perspective.
Consider that the SolaRoad cost $3.7 million to build, and in the Netherlands, solar energy costs $2 per kilowatt. That means the money spent for the SolaRoad could have bought 520,000 kilowatts of electricity. Compare that amount with the 3,000 kilowatts produced by the SolaRoad, and it’s easy to see why some people aren’t convinced the project was worthwhile. That’s 173 houses that could have been powered instead of one, for those wondering about the math.
The cost involved and the possible challenges with finding materials that can tolerate certain climates are two possible reasons why solar bike paths may not be poised for widespread adoption just yet. Still, we’re learning a tremendous amount by giving it a shot, and there is hope for the future.
Those of us who live in the states may not have to wait too long to see some Dutch influence. This spring, the Netherlands and California signed an agreement to collaborate on energy-efficiency projects ranging from electric car charging stations, to zero-emission public transit solutions and, yes, maybe even our very own SolaRoad.
Image credits: SolaRoad