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Should the Philippines turn its highways into solar power plants?

Using the sun to produce large-scale quantities of electricity

Imagine the Skyway being toll-free and covered with solar panels. PHOTO BY SAM SURLA

Highways. They are a necessary evil in our motorized world, in which, despite many advances in mobility, we are still largely dependent on cars and trucks to ferry us and the things we need around. But what if we could find a better use for all those miles of concrete and tarmac crisscrossing the earth? That’s a question the people behind Swiss company EnergyPier asked themselves, and their solution is as ingenious as it is useful. Instead of simply leaving thoroughfares to cars and trucks, the firm has developed a system that covers these vast stretches of road with solar panels and compact wind turbines. A pilot project is about to go underway to prove the concept, and, if it works, all suitable motorways in Switzerland could soon be turned into energy-generating facilities.

Motorists looking to enjoy the picturesque Swiss countryside in the Canton of Valais might soon be disappointed, as EnergyPier is planning to test its idea in the region. The company is about to initially cover a 1.6km stretch of motorway with 40,000 solar panels and around 500 compact wind turbines that together will be able to generate 50GWh per year, which is enough to power up to 12,500 households. The solar panels produce 20GWh, and the rest is contributed by wind turbines, with the whole setup covering over 76,000sq-m of motorway. Construction is expected to take eight to 12 months, and once built the structure is said to have a service life of up to 150 years.

A second, 2.5km stretch of highway near the city of Zurich is also scheduled to be covered in solar panels and fitted with small wind turbines, delivering around 80GWh of electricity in the process. In theory, all stretches of motorway in the country that do not pass through tunnels could be covered in this way, which would mean up to 1,300km of solar installations. In practice, EnergyPier is aiming for between 100km and 700km. That is still enough to generate a whopping 10TWh of solar energy per year, or roughly two-thirds of the output of all nuclear power plants in Switzerland right now.

This is EnergyPier's proposed answer to the energy dilemma. SCREENSHOT FROM ENERGYPIER

Not only does this sort of setup help with electricity generation without taking up any new space, but also covering highways with these structures also shields the roadways and the vehicles plying them from the elements, which makes this idea perfect for a place like the Philippines. Imagine a scenario where roads like the Skyway or the SLEX are covered in solar panels. You, as the driver, get to enjoy a cooler journey, the pavement itself will last longer as it is less exposed to the elements, and, to top it all off, the whole thing is generating electricity in an environment-friendly way.

This might well be a perfect avenue to increase the national power supply and maybe even help to get more electric vehicles onto our roads. It could also help to pay for new and existing roads. Imagine a skyway that is free to use because its operator already makes money from selling electricity generated by its solar panels installed above. There are all sorts of possibilities here, and with the sun being a constant feature, it would be silly not to at least explore this option. Over to you, government.

Frank Schuengel

Frank is a German e-commerce executive who loves his wife, a Filipina, so much he decided to base himself in Manila. He has interesting thoughts on Philippine motoring. He writes the aptly named ‘Frankly’ column.