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A timelapse of a busy motorway at night.

The Potential of Pavement Power

Mike Plaster
Wednesday 7th October, 2015

As we edge towards a fossil fuel-free future, the UK’s current road infrastructure requires a fresh approach. Electric cars can have a positive impact on the environment, but new methods of energy production are placing the focus on what’s under their wheels. Here, I take a look at the role roads could potentially play in a more sustainable network.

very year, a government report calculates the amount and types of fuel consumed to power the UK on an annual basis. In the 1970s, solid fuels were the main source of power, but natural gas from the North Sea would go on to take a bigger share in the following decades. As concerns for an eco-friendly planet began to grow, more work went into harnessing the potential of renewable energy.

With more and more households mounting solar panels to create energy and save on their fuel bills, along with the often-controversial installation of wind turbines offshore and on, Britain is doing its bit for renewable, clean energy. But one day the most unlikely place could be contributing considerable energy – our roads. We’re already seeing the positive effect from electric cars in reducing CO2 pollution and a new scheme in Scotland has incentivised it even further for prospective drivers. But, a number of plans are under way for actually creating clean energy on the roads rather than just reducing the amount of harmful emissions. So what are these schemes and how can road users and households benefit from their development?

Solar Roadways

One plan with plenty of potential as a source of clean energy is currently in its research and development phase of testing. A couple from the American state of Idaho are responsible for the Solar Roadways project, which has to date raised almost £1.5 million via online crowdfunding site Indiegogo.

Julie and Scott Brusaw have created solar-powered panels which can ostensibly be installed on road surfaces to generate power for the highway infrastructures they inhabit, as well as for the buildings and houses nearby.

With a special glass surface, which has proven near-indestructible in testing, replacing traditional concrete and asphalt with the solar panels would provide a massive boost to a clean energy generation. LED lights installed in the panels could help provide an aid to night-time driving, as well as display the latest traffic information for accidents ahead or speed restrictions. The heat generated would also help to melt snow on the roads, improving conditions during the winter and making the roads safer and more accessible.

With the potential to charge electric vehicles at the roadside, it may also reduce cars’ dependence on fossil fuels, increasing clean energy use on the roads and reducing pollution.

Similar testing has been met with great success in the Netherlands, where a test track for cyclists has generated enough energy to power a one-person household for a year.

While these experiments are being greeted with huge enthusiasm, the cost of testing and installation has, at the moment, proved too large for a bigger rollout, which sadly means we’re a way off from this vision just yet.

Shaped Magnetic Field in Resonance

Here in the UK, Highways England has announced ambitious plans for tests that could see electric car drivers able to charge their cars as they drive on specially adapted roads.

The concept is known as Shaped Magnetic Field in Resonance – where cables installed underneath the road use electromagnetism to create energy, which could then be transferred to cars using compatible technology.

It’s already been adopted in Gumi, South Korea, for use in maintaining two electric passenger buses, while limited testing in Milton Keynes has also begun. Here, however, the buses charge at regular stops rather than as they go along.

Although the scheme looks very promising, and testing on major motorways and A-roads could be in the pipeline, there are once again concerns about the cost of this ‘very ambitious’ project.

Dr Paul Nieuwenhuis of Cardiff Business School's Electric Vehicle Centre of Excellence said: “Cost will be the biggest issue and I'm not totally convinced it's worth it…it's not clear there's even a need for this.”

Highways England has pledged to commence testing for 18 months in either 2016 or 2017.

People-powered roads

In much the same way that one London dancefloor can power the entire venue if enough people get into the groove, testing on a road in Israel can theoretically soon have it powering the cars that drive on it.

Piezoelectricity is the charge created by compressing or stretching certain materials. According to one of its leading researchers, the applications for this common power source are only now being developed because of the need to cut back on fossil fuels both for preservation and sustainability.

While a branch of Sainsbury’s in Gloucester uses piezo plates installed in the car park to power its checkouts, a Rotterdam nightclub – called, appropriately enough, Watt – is harvesting the energy exerted on its dancefloors by enthusiastic revellers to power the lightshow. While the energy produced here is merely for show, it’s testament to what piezo power can achieve.

And that’s what a study led by Israeli company Innowattech aims to show; that by converting the power generated by cars passing over its surface, the road itself helps to power the surrounding streetlights.

According to the Daily Mail, “cars travelling along a mile length of asphalt could generate more than 640 kilowatts – enough power to run 12 small cars”.

While the benefits of piezoelectricity are immediately apparent, it’s not known whether the scheme would be effective enough to power homes on a daily basis. However, in areas subject to heavy traffic, it could certainly prove helpful in meeting other energy requirements.

The future

With the various projects spoken of here, we’re seeing some very encouraging signs that roads themselves could be a major part of producing clean energy. While the Brusaws have received additional state funding to expand their work, Highways England is busy crunching the numbers on what could become a promising avenue for Britain’s energy concerns. But as Euro-mandated guidelines on pollution creep ever closer, for now we must concert our efforts into a positive plan for the eco-friendly highway rather than chasing trends.

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