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Live Labs Blog: Central Bedfordshire looks to the sun

The latest blog comes from Central Bedfordshire's Jack Bowers, who takes us away from the storms to think about the power of the sun!

Summer is on its way! Well, not quite yet, but as the evenings are starting to get a little bit lighter now seems like a good time to provide an update on the Solar Road installation at Central Bedfordshire Council. 

The Solar Road trial in partnership with Colas and using its Wattway technology, was the third and final trial to be installed and fully functional as part of the ADEPT Smart Places Live Labs programme. This trial was completed in October 2021, when we installed 126 solar panels onto our car park at our Thorn Turn Highways Depot.  

The technology is the world’s first photovoltaic road surfacing solution and generates electricity from clean and renewable solar energy, while providing a safe surface for all vehicular traffic. Since the launch of this solar road technology, about 50 pilot projects around the world have demonstrated Wattway’s robustness, but this is the first of its kind in the UK. 

Colas suggest that around 20m² of Wattway can produce enough electricity to supply a single household and it’s estimated that our trial will generate up to 16,000KW of electricity per year. 

The aim is to use the energy generated from these panels to power our depot office building so that it can run solely from renewable energy. As we enter the warmer, and hopefully sunnier, months it will be interesting to assess the impact that these panels have in our energy reduction.  

Another element that we are keeping a close eye on is the durability of the road surface. At the Live Labs Expo in December there was a lot of interest in the technology, but also questions raised about the durability of the material used on the panels. The solar panels have a top layer installed on them which mimics a traditional road surface and has the same grip that you would expect on a normal carriageway. Therefore, vehicles can still drive directly onto the panels whilst they generate power through sunlight at the same time. 

The installation process is quite simple too. The solar panels are layered onto the normal road surface with an adhesive to ensure that they are safe and durable. The only issue with installation is that the weather conditions need to be good. It can’t be too hot, and of course, they can’t be layered whilst it’s wet, which is an issue in the UK and a reason for delays in our project.  

However, when you do get a window of good weather the installation is as simple as the science behind the Solar Road surface and it’s this simplicity that makes it so interesting to our stakeholders, particularly our members.  

Whilst we await the final data from Cranfield University, we are already looking at other locations where it could be practical to implement this technology. Whilst the solar panels do replicate a traditional road surface, putting these onto a main road may prove challenging and at this stage, risky. Maintenance would be more challenging and there are of course risks from utility companies’ works.  

As a consequence, we are assessing the potential for this technology to be installed onto council car parks, cycleways and footpaths. If we can increase the space filled with solar panels, and the trial proves to be cost effective, then this could be a real, credible solution to reduce our carbon footprint. 

Like all three of our Live Labs technologies, the potential with this is huge and it’s been fantastic to have this opportunity to trial something that could make a real difference. 

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