Solar Panelled Roads

Another nail in the coffin for legacy energy firms

Whether it’s a backlash against solar farms or another emotive speech by Elon Musk, solar is receiving more and more attention. In a recent poll, it was found that an impressive nine out of 10 Americans support the expansion of solar power.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out why – it costs absolutely nothing to harness the sun’s energy, drives down electricity bills and contributes to a sustainable future.

Society is clearly beginning to accept that the days of fossil fuels are numbered, and through affordable solar products like those offered by Elon Musk’s SolarCity, consumers are getting on board with renewable power. SolarCity is now the U.S.’s largest solar energy services provider, but which other companies are developing the solar products of the future, and how disruptive will they be?

Accelerating energy adoption
Elon Musk isn’t the only one who’s propagating renewable solar power, and it isn’t all happening across the Atlantic. French company Colas is planning to trial solar panels that can be glued to road surfaces. The company has called their new initiative ‘WattWay’, and plans to test it out in three different UK locations including Cambridge. Twelve feet of WattWay road surface can provide enough power for one home, using thin photovoltaic material to soak up the sun during daylight hours. It’s a similar concept to SolarCity’s integrated solar roof tiles, which are fitted onto existing structures as part of the roof itself.

However, there’s far more road than roof.

Solar bike lanes have been installed in the Netherlands, where there are 140,000 kilometres of available road surface. Fitted with Colas’s WattWay solution, that’s enough road to supply over 38 million homes with renewable power. One of the reasons that WattWay and initiatives like it are so revolutionary is that they don’t impinge on the environment, which is one of the main barriers against adoption. Instead, they work seamlessly with manmade structures that have already been in place for years, avoiding debates surrounding the destruction of the natural world. By 2020, Colas hopes to make their solar roads cost competitive with solar farms. The scope for solar is huge, but how will these new ventures disrupt the energy sector, as well as others?

How disruptive is solar?
Solar power is obviously causing massive disruption to the energy sector as consumers turn away from legacy providers and look to sustainability as an alternative. Social reluctance has been one of the biggest challenges for the adoption of renewables, but now there’s a clear shift towards acceptance. For one, solar power is much, much cheaper to get hold of and use than fossil fuels are, and it comes without contributing to the demise of the world’s finite resources. Solar isn’t just disrupting traditional energy – it’s disrupting itself by offering alternatives to solar farms, which have always been much contested. On top of this, products like SolarCity’s roof tiles and Colas’s road panels will disrupt traditional construction, as building plans and contractors will need to take in to account the possibility of solar installations. The adoption of renewables in general has also created a new retail market for solar products such as Tesla’s Powerwall battery, which are increasing the efficiency of energy storage. Solar energy is in essence a very good thing, but as usual the rise of renewables isn’t going to be great news for everyone.

The popularity of renewable energy in general is a big challenge for legacy energy firms, who have spent years building up their businesses around fossil fuels. There’s no two ways about it – non-renewable energy will eventually run out. This means that established oil and gas providers are going to have to do some serious re-evaluation. The advent of mass renewable power doesn’t necessarily mean that these companies have to die – by acquiring startups and investing in R&D, they could ride out the solar storm. Growing solar use is also disrupting utility companies by reducing energy consumption. Some local utilities have taken an aggressive stance, forcing solar-powered home owners to pay increased rates and truly scuppering the ambitions of solar companies. The way to make this work is through compromise, as consumer demand for affordable, renewable power isn’t going to disappear.

Ultimately, the continued expansion of solar is an unavoidable reality. With so much money and support behind companies like Colas, development and consequent adoption are certain. Businesses and consumers alike are working to make the most of renewable energy, which is bound to disrupt various sectors – starting, of course, with energy itself. In order to survive in a changing market, legacy power companies will have to innovate, or amalgamate. As well as transforming energy, solar products will effect construction and retail. SolarCity pioneered integrated renewable products with its roof tiles and batteries, but now new businesses have recognised the opportunities that lie in sustainable solar provision. It would be unwise not to mention the sheer amount of alternative renewable energy solutions, however. Solar isn’t the only player in the field, and the development of other options will lead to even more competition between providers. There will be other problems to overcome, including the aggressive policies of threatened utilities. . . but with consumer support and continuing investment, solar companies will come out on top.

Can legacy firms survive the mass adoption of solar power? Which other sectors will be affected by solar energy? Comment below with your thoughts and opinions.