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Power from public space

Chris Rance | 28 Aug 2015 | Comments

Public space including transport infrastructure could be contributing to the power generation of the future, with solar energy capture systems built into common outdoor surfaces including highway barriers, seating, pedestrian paving, cycle paths and even road surfaces.

Researchers at the Netherlands’ Eindhoven University of Technology are currently studying a new type of solar panel – luminescent solar concentrators (LSC) – which can be manufactured in either transparent or coloured translucent form, in contrast to the typically dark metallic appearance of photovoltaic (PV) cells. The researchers are studying the effectiveness of the coloured panels with a trial currently mounted as highway barriers on the A2 motorway near Den Bosch. If successful, structures such as these could provide multifunctional urban elements which could separate traffic from adjoining areas, provide decorative features and generate power – all at once. Other universities are also researching the application of LSC technology and a California based spin-off company of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Ubiquitous Energy, is starting to produce a number of transparent solar products including a power-producing coating for windows.

Also in the Netherlands a public-private venture, SolarRoad, is developing a system for constructing road surfaces with inbuilt photovoltaic panels. In 2014 the company constructed a trial 70 metre test track along a cycle path on the outskirts of Amsterdam which has since been trafficked by over 150,000 bikes. Potentially a system such as this could provide power for street lighting systems or even electric vehicles. In the USA a start-up company, Solar Roadways, is similarly developing a prototype roadway system based on photovoltaic cells to generate electricity.

This new technology may well change current perceptions of solar power generation from being somehow separate and utilitarian, such as solar farms and PV roof installations, to being an integrated component of the public realm of our cities and transport infrastructure. Given that the amount of solar radiation striking the earth over a 3 day period is equivalent to all the energy stored in all fossil fuels (source: Energy Technology Partnership) the potential for public space to contribute to power generation has got to be a good thing.