Tampa Bay has taken a historic step to replace its aging backup generators with solar power pavement
The project will sheath 90 feet of sidewalk near a busy intersection with a one-centimeter thick array of solar cells enclosed in a resilient mix of plastic polymers. This tiny patch of urban infrastructure will generate about 4,956 kilowatts of energy per year. The Tampa project is also a large step for Co-founder Brian Johnson, who, along with Meng Wang, Founder and Executive Chairman, started Vancouver-based Solar Earth Technologies, the winner of the Tampa bid.
In the battle to combat climate change, Tampa’s first solar tender is a tiny, but instructive look into a carbon-free future. It is a test to see if a much-mocked technology can find a niche in a post-carbon future, turning everything from walkways to driveways to patios and roofs into energy producers by using the photovoltaic-infused pavement.
“Solar freakin’ highways”
Solar pavement demonstrates the fraught history of coming up with big ideas to solve big problems in the age of the internet. Four years ago, for a shining second, solar roadway became an internet sensation. “Solar Freakin highways,” shouted one excited entrepreneur. Solar roads would turn America’s roads into a powerful source of energy. In France, the country’s largest road builder embarked on an ambitious project to pave a piece of Normandy highway. Unfortunately, it and other solar road tests ended as epic failures. In Normandy, heavy trucks and tractors shredded the surface’s solar cells. Critics widely panned the idea of solar roads as an expensive and inefficient folly. France’s “WattWay” cost Euros 5 million to build, or Euro 11,905 per installed kilowatt, but generated a fraction of its promise of 4,956 kilowatt-hours of energy per year. Solar Roads soon became the subject of mocking internet memes.
Looking over the carnage, Johnson realized that the key to success was solar sidewalks, not highway pavement. By thinking small, and with much-improved technology, Solar Earth Technologies has quickly become a leader in small scale sustainable infrastructure. In 2017, it developed North America’s first solar-powered sidewalk. That year it also paved three sections of roadside in Beijing to power nearby buildings. In Daxing, China, Solar Earth has been busy upgrading its solar project, adding lane line-markings and pedestrian walkways. Planning is also underway to add sensors to the solar cells that will deliver real-time traffic and positional data to support autonomous vehicle control systems.
South Africa embraces solar pavement
Even more promising, solar paving is a solution for deteriorating central electrical grids in developing nations, which struggle with chronic load sharing and blackouts. One country particularly interested in Solar Earth’s technology is South Africa, a nation hobbled by brownouts. Solar Earth executives have been working with Cape Town officials to repave public spaces with photovoltaics to generate electricity for lighting to deter crime during blackouts. Upon the plateau, the city’s more affluent gated-communities want to pave the perimeter roads to power the electrical fences that encircle the compounds. Even Cape town’s vintners are looking to the solar pavement for a steady flow of electricity needed to manage their vineyards.
But Solar Earth continues to face a dearth of real-world challenges as it tries to scale a great idea into a commercial success. The internet mockery has soured many investors. And those that might be interested, ironically, are not interested in funding such a small company. And then there are politics. With relations between Canada and China at an all-time low, Canadian investors are spooked to support any project dependent on China, where Solar Earth’s main manufacturing plant is located. In South Africa, its project has been dragged into local politics as the ruling ANC government’s ambitious efforts to transition to non-carbon fuel alternatives have been stymied by the powerful coal truckers union that opposes any development of renewable energy sources.
Despite these obstacles, demand for Solar Earth’s smart pavement is far outstripping its ability to make the panels. In addition to Tampa, the company has ten more projects underway in Cape Town, and another 40 trials around the world. It may just be that solar paving will get the last laugh.