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French solar roadway declared “a complete flop”

Sometimes we should just let a bad idea die.

TreeHugger always has been proud to display diverse views. Derek Markham was excited about the Wattway solar roadway built in France, while I have always thought the idea was nuts. Readers complained, “This is an innovative idea. It's refreshing to see such original ideas out in the world.” Sami stood with Derek and the readers, and noted, “First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they post your crowdfunding video. And then… well, let's just wait and see.”

A year ago I noted that the Wattway road was generating half as much energy as expected, and again readers complained that I am rushing to judgement: “Lloyd, would you please stop bashing these solar roads? Eventually they will figure it out or it will spawn some other great green solution.”

But sometimes, perhaps we should just acknowledge when something is a dumb idea and move on. According to Le Monde and Popular Mechanics, the Wattway solar road has been declared a complete flop. Driving over it made so much noise that they had to drop the speed limit to 70 km/hr.

Le Monde describes the road as “pale with its ragged joints,” with “solar panels that peel off the road and the many splinters that enamel resin protecting photovoltaic cells.” It's a poor sign for a project that French government invested in to the tune of €5 million, or $5,546,750.

In Eurasia Times, Marc Jedliczka of the Network for Energy Transition, which promotes renewable energy, says, “If they really want this to work, they should first stop cars driving on it. It confirms the total absurdity of going all-out for innovation to the detriment of solutions that already exist and are more profitable, such as solar panels on roofs.” (He was quoted by France’s Le Monde newspaper.) Even the people who built it are admitting failure.

For its part, Colas has admitted the project is a bust. “Our system is not mature for inter-urban traffic,” Etienne Gaudin, Colas' chief executive of Wattway, told Le Monde.

solar roadway  empty© Brice Robert

I have wondered more than once why anyone would want to put solar panels in a roadway where they have to be made with materials strong enough to be run over by trucks, get covered in dirt, are not at an optimum angle, and cost a fortune. I still can't think of a worse place to put them, other than in my basement. Since we started showing these things, conventional solar panels have dropped in price so much that the disparity in cost has probably been magnified tenfold. Readers still complain that I am wrong.

Any new technology is always expensive. Yes, the cost is astronomical, but this is the stepping stone of a new electric revolution, my friend. Solar panels on houses are great but they cannot charge your car while driving through induction. Imagine a road that charged your car as you drove. This is something much larger than the cost it takes to build.

But we have untold millions of acres of rooftops on buildings and houses that could still be covered in solar. In Korea, they are putting solar panels on frames to protect bike paths from the sun, which probably costs less than putting them on the ground. There are so many innovative and exciting opportunities for solar panels, but let's finally accept it: putting them in roadways ain't one of them.

Sometimes we should just let a bad idea die.