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Researchers at Thompson Rivers University are installing Canada’s first solar electric road surface in Kamloops.

Michael Mehta’s Solar Compass Project will embed 64 super-durable solar panels right outside the main doors of the university’s Arts and Education Building.

“The system will produce enough power to run 40 computers in that building, eight hours a day, 365 days a year,” said Mehta.

While the panels in their current form might not be practical for a busy road surface, they could easily be integrated into urban infrastructure as sidewalks to power street lighting or even to carry fibre-optic signals for telecommunications, said Mehta.

“There is some concern, and it’s justified, that people will start to use arable land for solar farms, because it’s lucrative,” he said. “We think that using existing infrastructure like roads and pathways makes a lot more sense.”

That opens the door for smarter road surfaces that could change the number of lanes by literally moving the white lines or display dynamic road-based signage that changes with driving conditions detected by integrated sensors, such as black ice.

“This solar surface is the scaffold for all those future applications,” he said. “Once we prove the concept, all those other things are relatively easy to embed in this technology.”

The 1,200-square-foot array of panels will produce 15,000 kilowatt hours of electricity per year. The panels — produced by Vancouver’s Solar Earth Technologies — are one metre by two metres in size and consist of 50 solar modules each.

The array will require 32 micro-inverters to convert direct current to alternating current that we typically use in our homes.

“Modern solar equipment is pretty straightforward, so there isn’t a lot of infrastructure required,” said Mehta. “The micro-inverters are about the size of an iPad, we need some wiring and other than that there isn’t much more involved.”

While the TRU installation will only have to stand up to foot traffic, the panels are strong enough to withstand the weight of a fire truck, he said.

“The low-hanging fruit for urban environments is to make better use of sidewalks, which aren’t subject to much wear and tear,” he said. “They could easily power a city’s outdoor lighting and become part of the telecommunications infrastructure.”

Conventional solar panels made with tempered glass surfaces last 30 years or more, but it remains to be seen how the high-friction polymer materials required for a road-surface panel will stand up to various levels of traffic, impacts and environmental conditions.

The installation is slated for June.

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