Power to the pavement
projects to integrate solar power and Wi-Fi into roads are bringing new meaning to connectivity
Today's roads are useful but lazy. Sure, they're the backbone of the world's land transportation system. But roads also spend most of their time idle. One thing they could be doing is generating energy.
A flurry of projects is now putting pavement to work. But next-gen roads aren't yet ready to be scaled up. “These projects are expensive to install, and they raise real questions about repair and maintenance,” says Peter Harrop, PhD, chairman of the technology market research firm IDTechEx, London, England. Despite the cost and performance questions, though, they hold potential for long-term viability and could complement other efforts to create smart, connected cities, he says. “The projects are opening up a world where electricity and Wi-Fi could be available wherever you need it.”
U.K.-based Virgin Media recently implemented the country's first “smart Wi-Fi pavement” in Chesham, England. The project installed Wi-Fi access points under manhole covers made with a special material allowing radio signals to pass through. The idea came from brainstorm sessions about how to generate additional benefits from existing assets, including leveraging the company's abundant in-ground fiber-optic cables, says Simon Clement, senior technologist, Virgin Media, London, England. “If we can reuse existing space without adversely impacting its primary purpose, then it's definitely a promising project opportunity,” he says.
“If we can reuse existing space without adversely impacting its primary purpose, then it's definitely a promising project opportunity.”
—Simon Clement, Virgin Media, London, England
Mr. Clement and Virgin Media's Advanced Technology and Innovation Team originally developed the concept in 2010, but stakeholders weren't ready to embrace it. “Sometimes innovation projects can be a very quick turnaround; on other occasions this can take several years,” he says. The project team reviewed the idea periodically, and eventually the executive team at Virgin Media felt the rising consumer demand for Wi-Fi combined with the current state of technology made it a feasible project.
The Chesham Town Council quickly approved the initiative, and the project team launched a pilot focused on a small stretch of walkway. “This enables us to fail fast should the concept not start to look like it will be successful,” he says, noting that stakeholder presentation to working trial took just four months. The network went live in October 2015. Now the project team is measuring usage patterns and wireless performance characteristics to gauge success. Results thus far look good, and Virgin Media is exploring additional Wi-Fi projects in other cities.
On the Light Path
A Netherlands-based consortium is trying to reinvent bike paths. In November 2014, the province of North Holland, TNO, Ooms Civiel and Dynniq launched a three-year, €3.5 million pilot project to install a 230-foot (70-meter) stretch of bike path near Amsterdam embedded with solar cells. After six months, measures showed the path produced more energy than predicted. The project team is now monitoring the performance and durability of the path to prove the concept for future projects.
A bike path near Amsterdam, the Netherlands, embedded with solar cells
A similar initiative was announced earlier this year in France, where Colas, a transport infrastructure company, and INES (France's National Institute for Solar Energy) are collaborating on a project to generate solar power from 621 miles (1,000 kilometers) of roads by 2021. Installation was scheduled to begin in the second quarter of 2016. But rather than tearing up and replacing the roadways, the project team will apply a 7-millimeter (0.3-inch) layer of durable polycrystalline silicon that can transform solar energy into electricity. Colas predicts that when completed, the project will deliver enough power for 5 million people,
“These projects are expensive to install, and they raise real questions about repair and maintenance.”
—Peter Harrop, PhD, IDTechEx, London, England
ROI Is TBD
Despite such benefits, concerns about wear and tear, efficiency, snow and dirt cover, and repair issues make solar roads a tough sell to public officials and citizens footing the bills. Then there are the up-front costs. Pete Danko at BreakingEnergy.com argues that if the project budget of €3.5 million went instead to more efficient standard solar installations, Amsterdam could have generated more than 500,000 kilowatt hours of electricity instead of the 3,000 kilowatt hours generated by the bike path.
If these kinds of projects are going to evolve from pilots into the mainstream, governments need to be open-minded and willing to work with technology partners to drive innovation, says Mr. Clement. “A symbiotic relationship between stakeholders and project delivery teams is key to successful delivery of any innovation project,” he says. “We need to be flexible on scope, and they need to be flexible and understand the delivery challenges in these types of projects.” —Sarah Fister Gale
PM NETWORK JULY 2016 WWW.PMI.ORG
JULY 2016 PM NETWORK