Solar panels are paved on the world's first photovoltaic highway to be opened to traffic in Jinan city, east China's Shandong province. Photo: AFP
Solar panels are paved on the world's first photovoltaic highway to be opened to traffic in Jinan city, east China's Shandong province. Photo: AFP

China’s determination to become a leader in renewable energy is picking up speed on a highway in the city of Jinan, and people are taking notice.

A New York Times report Monday on a solar panel-paved highway followed up on recent stories from Quartz and Bloomberg, generating more hype for the potentially game-changing development.

China’s capacity for tackling new infrastructure projects, coupled with the country’s leadership in solar panel manufacturing, presents a unique opportunity. Beijing’s support for renewable energy industries also offers a boost.

“Because roads run through and around cities, the electricity could be used practically next door to where it is generated. That means virtually no power would be lost in transmission, as can happen with projects in outlying locations,” the Times noted. “And the land is essentially free, because roads are needed anyway. Roads must be resurfaced every few years at great cost, so the installation of durable solar panels could reduce the price of maintenance.”

Solar roads may even transform the entire driving experience. “Electric heating strips can melt snow that falls on them. Light-emitting diodes embedded in the surface can provide illuminated signage to direct drivers to exits and alert them to construction and other traffic hazards,” the article went on.

Bloomberg reported in April that the company spearheading the solar panel highway project, Qilu transportation, is looking to do more than just generate electricity.

“[Qilu] wants the road to be just as smart as the vehicles of the future. The government says 10 percent of all cars should be fully self-driving by 2030, and Qilu considers that an opportunity to deliver better traffic updates, more accurate mapping and on-the-go recharging of electric-vehicle batteries—all from the ground up.

“’The highways we have been using can only carry vehicles passing by, and they are like the 1.0-generation product,’ said Zhou Yong, the company’s general manager. We’re working on the 2.0 and 3.0 generations by transplanting brains and a nervous system.’

France opened what it said was the world’s first solar-panel road in 2016, and the Netherlands built a bike path embedded with solar panels several years before that, Quartz reported last year. But China is the first to try the same with a highway.

“The project signals China’s solar-power ambitions,” Quartz noted. “Last year the country became the world’s top solar-energy producer, boosting its photovoltaic capacity to around 78 gigawatts, and it’s aiming for 105 by 2020. China’s eastern city of Huainan, meanwhile, operates the world’s biggest floating solar project, which could eventually power 94,000 homes.”

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