Solar Roads and the Urban Fabric of the Future

Glass has become an increasingly versatile material in the eyes of people as of late and has now surpassed the idea of being a fragile material with which to handle with care. It has gained increasing popularity as a structural material. In fact, scientists are now using this structural integrity as a component in a prototype solar road panel. The argument is that as oil prices increase in the coming years, petroleum-based asphalt will become less viable as an infrastructure option. Instead, why not have the roads pay for themselves and more during their lifetime? By sandwiching LEDs in between thick glass sheets, the 12’x12’ panels can light up with any number of shapes, words, or even just “painted” road lines. Photovoltaic cells embedded in the panels will generate all electricity for the LEDs plus more to go back into the grid.

The Danish architecture firm Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) is taking the technology one step further. Rather than these panels merely acting as a replacement for roads, BIG imagines them as a means by which to reimagine the urban fabric altogether. In conjunction with driverless cars that communicate with each other, the firm proposed in their winning bid for Audi’s Urban Future Award that city plazas and streets could become a sort of dynamic symphony of light and interaction. A colored circle would appear around each person walking and would move with the person as they interact in the space. The new driverless cars would have a series of arrows in front of them, denoting their path as they progress forward. This path would actively adjust to nearby pedestrians in order to avoid crashing into anyone. The combined visuals of the cars’ arrows and the moving circles of people would cause the cityscape to constantly shift in color and movement.

With how much goes into solar panels now, though, is a nationwide infrastructure of solar road panels any more sustainable than asphalt? And is BIG’s approach to the technology taking the potential of it too far? Could light pollution become an even worse issue if BIG’s Urban Future were to come into fruition? Would it cause issues with people having trouble sleeping at night because the streets are constantly alive with shifting light? Overall, solar roads have serious potential in the energy harvesting realm if properly funded. Whether they should contribute to the creation of a light-up landscape remains to be seen.

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One comment

  1. These are all very interesting ideas but I don’t see any of these being practical, efficient, or in any way the future of road paving. Some of the reasons behind this thought are because for one, glass as a road material seems pretty out there. Just because we can create glass that is capable of holding the weight of a car does not mean it is the best material to do so. Its definitely not the cheapest and the only reason I can think of to use glass in this way would be to insert lights or solar panels inside them, which have problems of their own.

    To me inserting solar panels into a street system doesn’t seem like a reasonable place for them. Sure there is plenty of flat space to insert them but when streets aren’t covered by cars or in the shadows of buildings, they are too far away from any building that could efficiently get the energy it was generating. Aside from the LED light idea you mentioned BIG had, the only reason I can think of that solar panels in streets would be a good idea would be if in the future we had electric cars that could somehow absorb the energy that the roads were generating.

    As for the LED lights within the road idea, it is an interesting thought to create signs and arrows with the lights within the road but I worry how visible this would be during the day with the glare of the sun. Along with some of the points you brought up about light pollution I do not see this being commonly incorporated into streets in the future.

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