JINAN, China — On a smoggy afternoon, huge log carriers and oil tankers thundered down a highway and hurtled around a curve at the bottom of a hill. Only a single, unreinforced guardrail stood between the traffic and a ravine.
The route could make for tough driving under any conditions. But experts are watching it for one feature in particular: The highway curve is paved with solar panels.
"If it can pass this test, it can fit all conditions," said Li Wu, the chairman of Shandong Pavenergy, the company that made the plastic-covered solar panels that carpet the road. If his product fares well, it could have a major impact on the renewable energy sector, and on the driving experience, too.
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The experiment is the latest sign of China's desire to innovate in, and dominate, the increasingly lucrative and strategically important market for renewable energy. The country already produces three-quarters of the solar panels sold globally, and its wind-turbine manufacturing industry is also among the world's largest.
The potential appeal of solar roads — modified solar panels that are installed in place of asphalt — is clear. Generating electricity from highways and streets, rather than in fields and deserts packed with solar panels, could conserve a lot of land. Those advantages are particularly important in a place like China, a heavily populated country where demand for energy has risen rapidly.
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. 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 could also change the 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.
Now, such roads are finally becoming viable. Prices have fallen drastically in recent years — thanks in large part to soaring Chinese production, a solar panel costs a tenth of what it did a decade ago. Road builders in China even want to design solar roads that can wirelessly recharge electric cars running on them, emulating a recent American experiment.
China's leaders in solar road development are Pavenergy and Qilu Transportation. The two companies are working together here in Jinan, in Shandong Province, with Pavenergy making panels for Qilu, a large, state-owned highway construction and management company that operates the highway.