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France is building a 621-mile solar panel roadway to provide sustainable energy to five million people

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France’s new solar project represents a giant leap forward in terms of how we choose our energy source. France’s commitment to erecting and operating a large-scale solar roadway is a landmark initiative following the Paris climate change agreement last year. For the global community, it will actualize an idea that once seemed distant and conceptual—if hilarious—following Scott Brusaw’s explanatory video that went viral a year or two ago. “SolarFreakin Roadways!”—you know the one.

The roadway, set to be complete “in the next five years,” will span an incredible 1,000 kilometres (621 miles) of photovoltaic panels, which will be known as the Wattway. This road will generate enough energy to supply solar power to five million people. To put this differently, this stretch of road could supply power to the entire population of just about any major North American city (unless you live in NYC, population eight million.) In France, this means that approximately eight percent of the French population will thrive on the energy supplied by the Wattway.

The company in charge, Colas (a subsidiary of Bouygues), spent the past five years developing this technology, called Wattway panels. Fortunately, Hervé Le Bouc, the CEO of Colas, contends that “There is no need to rebuild infrastructure.” The solar panels could be laid like tiles on top of the existing road.

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According to Global Construction Review, these panels work by using a 7mm layer of polycrystalline silicon, a material which is both durable enough to support large vehicles and provide traction and proficiency in harnessing solar energy. A layer of resin will be applied to the outside of the panels to increase traction. The panels are also completely weatherproof. The solar roads are reported to have a lifespan equivalent to pavement. The question of how this road will be funded remains somewhat foggy, though one French minister has given clues as to where the money will come from.

Last year Ségolène Royal, France’s minister of ecology and energy, advocated hiking carbon taxes to make room in the budget for more renewables like wind and solar power. “We have to aim for €100 a tonne. It’s a good price,” Royal said in Financial Times. This tax increase, she suggests, would free up 200 to 300 million Euros that would be better spent on renewables and technologies to vault the Positive Energy initiative.

This global paradigm shift towards large-scale sustainable projects should only pick up speed in the following years. The world’s first solar roadway—designed as a bike path—was installed (unsurprisingly) in the Netherlands in 2014 and has consistently surpassed expectations. SolaRoad spokesman, Sten de Wit, admitted to Eco Watch last year “We did not expect a yield as high as this so quickly.” That leaves room for plenty of optimism in France for their new roadway, set to be erected in the next few years.

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