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Where Will The Next Solar Breakthrough Come From?

Solar power is starting to crop up in some unexpected places. Take one of Tesla’s new initiatives for instance. Following Tesla’s closing of the acquisition of Solar City, the company has jumped on board one of the newest areas in utilities; microgrids.

Microgrids are intended to reduce reliance on a larger electrical grid by decentralizing power generation, thus increasing durability of the system. Solar power is particularly effective for this type of application because it can be easily scaled up or down to fit the size of the need. Tesla’s microgrid application is running the island of Ta'u, in American Samoa, on a solar energy microgrid. The Tesla grid’s 1.4 megawatts, can cover "nearly 100 percent" of its 600 residents' electrical needs.

Granted that grid is tiny, but that’s not really the point. Instead the broader point is demonstrating uses of solar power in novel settings; in this case on a remote island. Moreover, solar power alone is not enough, storage is also needed. The Ta’u system consists of 5,328 solar panels plus 60 Tesla Powerpacks that offer a total of 6 megawatt-hours of energy storage. This is a system that would have been impossible a decade ago.

A second example of novel applications of solar panels comes out of France and has spread to four continents. French firm, Wattway, a unit of Colas SA and Bouygues SA has designed rugged solar panels, capable of withstand the weight of an 18-wheeler truck. These solar panels have been through five years of research and laboratory tests, and are now being used in constructing 100 outdoor test sites.

Wattway began testing a kilometer-sized site last month in the French village of Tourouvre in Northern France. The test site includes 2,800 square meters of solar panels which should generate 280 kilowatts of power at peak levels, enough to power all the public lighting in a town of 5,000 for a year. The electricity generated by this stretch of solar road will feed directly into the grid. Other test sites are being used to charge electric vehicles and power a small hydrogen production plant. The next two sites will be in Calgary in Canada and in the U.S. state of Georgia. Wattway also plans to build them in Africa, Japan and throughout the European Union.

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The French firm plans to commercialize the technology in early 2018. The typical approach for solar panels in roads used by Wattway involves layering several types of plastics to create a clear and durable casing. The solar panel underneath is an ordinary model, similar to panels on rooftops. The electrical wiring is embedded in the road and the contraption is topped by an anti-slip surface made from crushed glass. The issue of dirt and grime on roads is potentially a concern for solar panels embedded in roads, but of course the same issue holds true when dealing with rooftop panels to some degree as well.

Many observers have been disdainful of solar panels in roads, but the development highlights an important larger trend. As solar costs have plummeted, solar panels are being increasingly used as part of everyday materials, in essence creating products that do double duty. For example, last month Tesla Motors Inc. unveiled its solar roof, a development that took many by surprise. Other companies are looking seriously for ways of integrating photovoltaics into building facades. The plan to build solar panels into roads is right in line with this trend and is not limited to French companies. Sweden’s Scania and Solar Roadways in the U.S. are both working to embed panels onto pavement.

By Michael McDonald of Oilprice.com

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