It should come to no surprise that the sun melts snow and ice. Indeed, one of the reasons we have such severe climate change is because the energy from the sun isn’t being reflected off of snow (the albedo effect).
Some enterprising researchers have proposed that we capture the energy the sun is tossing at us by using roads to store energy that can be later used to melt snow or provide energy. Imagine all the roads in North America as an energy source!
“We have mile after mile of asphalt pavement around the country, and in the summer it absorbs a great deal of heat, warming the roads up to 140 degrees or more,” said K. Wayne Lee, URI professor of civil and environmental engineering and the leader of the joint project. “If we can harvest that heat, we can use it for our daily use, save on fossil fuels, and reduce global warming.”
The URI team has identified four potential approaches, from simple to complex, and they are pursuing research projects designed to make each of them a reality.
One of the simplest ideas is to wrap flexible photovoltaic cells around the top of Jersey barriers dividing highways to provide electricity to power streetlights and illuminate road signs. The photovoltaic cells could also be embedded in the roadway between the Jersey barrier and the adjacent rumble strip.
“This is a project that could be implemented today because the technology already exists,” said Lee. “Since the new generation of solar cells are so flexible, they can be installed so that regardless of the angle of the sun, it will be shining on the cells and generating electricity. A pilot program is progressing for the lamps outside Bliss Hall on campus.”
Another practical approach to harvesting solar energy from pavement is to embed water filled pipes beneath the asphalt and allow the sun to warm the water. The heated water could then be piped beneath bridge decks to melt accumulated ice on the surface and reduce the need for road salt. The water could also be piped to nearby buildings to satisfy heating or hot water needs, similar to geothermal heat pumps. It could even be converted to steam to turn a turbine in a small, traditional power plant.