Solar roads were always a terrible idea
It was a non-solution to a non-problem, but unfortunately humans are attracted to such things.
The idea of solar roads was sweeping the world not a decade ago. Start-up solar road companies attracted plenty of public funding for pilot projects for vehicle lanes and bicycle lanes.
What was strange about the whole situation is how obviously flawed the idea was, yet so many people, including public agencies, got swept along with the hype anyway.
From the get-go, it was not clear what problem was being solved by solar roads, and it still is not clear today. The lack of take-up of solar power was never due to a lack of space. Solar power was constrained economically by the general energy and cost efficiency of solar systems, and putting solar panels under roads only made this economic situation many times worse. As the economics constraint has changed due to more efficient systems and subsequent price reductions, solar investment has boomed.
Solving non-problems is unfortunately very attractive. Since the solar roads debacle we have also seen the rise and fall of the non-solution to a non-problem in the form of cryptocurrency.
The three years of COVID panic have been a tough lesson in how attracted we humans can be to non-solutions to non-problems, and how normal it is. Just about the whole world went along with massively damaging policies that made no practical sense. So I guess I can now better understand the human tendencies that led to the solar roads failures, but they are nonetheless another informative lesson about human collective decision making.
Below the break is something I wrote back in 2016 pointing out some of the obvious flaws of solar roads and pointing out how our primate brain seems so drawn to seductive non-solutions.
And don’t miss this recent FET podcast episode about economic growth and the environment.
Humans are quite smart for hairless apes. But sometimes I wonder whether we really do have the edge over our distant cousins.
Here’s an example. Solar roads. For some reason, the most idiotic idea ever still seems to gain popular attention and funding. France is now committing to investment in solar roads.
But, you are thinking, that actually does sound quite interesting and potentially wonderful. Oh, how innovative.
I know right? The urge to jump on board this idea seems irresistible. But that’s our monkey brain doing the thinking. Because when you switch on your rational mind the whole this looks like a big joke.
Our instincts are not good at thinking about a new idea in relation to a particular alternative. It takes conscious rational thinking to realise that for this to be a good idea, we need to think of alternatives to compare it to. Our default is to compare solar roads to no solar investment, hence the urge to think it sounds great.
So here’s an alternative. Solar panels anywhere but roads!
The solar roads concept also implies it is solving a problem that doesn’t exist. In this case, a problem of insufficient space for solar panels. But that is absolutely not a problem. Estimates suggest there are 400 square kilometres of just residential roof space in Australia that could accommodate solar panels. More than enough to our total electricity needs, and that ignores the large industrial and commercial spaces available.
Here’s my very brief list of why the idea is stupid.
Roads have things on them that block the sun, like cars, people, trees and buildings shading them and so forth.
Roads cannot be angled to efficiently capture sunlight.
Roads get dirty.
Roads need a superstructure above the solar panel that will reduce efficiency.
Building solar roads means expensive excavations and repairs that will block traffic flow.
The technology to do it is rubbish.
You may have heard that in Amsterdam there is a trial of a solar bike path. I think the title of this article sums up their result “That Fancy New Solar Bike Path In Amsterdam Is Utter Bullshit"
That article says it all.
What about a better alternative? How about building a roof over bikeways covered in solar? This alternative has a few things going for it
Keeps cyclists dry
Keeps snow off the bike path in cold climates
Can be angled to the sun
Is proven technology
Provides shade in hot climates
And, it has been done before quite successfully. Check out the video below, but note that it would be even better to put bike lanes shaded with solar panels beside the highway and not in the middle of it.
Thanks for reading Fresh Economic Thinking! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.