If you live in or have ever visited the state of California, you know it’s home to famous movie stars, gorgeous beaches, and miles and miles of bumper to bumper traffic. Freeway traffic and constant gridlock is nothing to smile about. But researchers might have found a way to turn California’s traffic woes into a renewable green energy win thanks to technological advancements in energy conversion.
How Do We Turn Traffic into Energy?
In order to convert California’s gridlock into renewable green energy, major roadways will need to be embedded with piezoelectric panels. These panels will capture the kinetic energy produced by cars passing over the roadways. The more cars that pass over the roadways, the more energy that will be produced and captured. That captured energy is then transformed into an electrical charge and sent to a nearby storage battery. The stored energy can be used to power electronic sides along the roadway or transferred back to the main power grid.
The California Energy Commission has dedicated $2.3 million in funding for two independent studies to test whether these large-scale piezoelectric panels on California roadways will work. Mike Gravely, an electrical engineer with the Commission, thinks the studies will be a success. Gravely said, “There’s a lot of traffic in California and a lot of vibration that just goes into the atmosphere as heat. We can capture that. The technology has been successfully demonstrated.”
Will It Work?
In order for the roadway electricity generators to be economically viable, approximately 400 cars and trucks will need to pass over the specified area every hour. Luckily, on the roadways planned to undergo testing, this number will be easily achievable. And unlike wind or solar power, which rely on unstable weather conditions, traffic in California is constant and reliable.
Once the pilot projects take off, researchers will begin to collect data. Within two to three years, officials will be able to decide whether the projects are economically viable and if they should be expanded.
As well as producing clean energy in an innovative way, this new form of electricity generation will help the California Legislature meet its goal of producing half of the state’s power from renewable resources by 2030.
Details on the Projects
The first project to implement the energy generating roadway will receive $1.3 million of the total $2.3 million in state funding. The University of California is piloting this project under engineering professor Jian-Qiao Sun. Sun has drawn up a 200 foot long test roadway that will be embedded with the piezoelectric converters.
The second project, receiving $1 million in funding, will be conducted by Pyro-E, an energy startup in San Jose. Pyro-E was the winner of the Department of Energy’s 2013 National Clean Energy Business Plan Competition. Their goal is to demonstrate that 5000 homes could be powered by the traffic moving over a half-mile stretch of piezoelectric test roadway.
What Are the Downsides?
As amazing as the project sounds, skeptics do have their concerns. Many worry that the cost of embedding roadways with energy converters will outweigh the benefits. In addition to the cost of creating the energy generating roadways, there will be additional consequences for disrupting the traffic flow during this construction.
John Harvey, a professor of engineering at the University of California, is worried about the effect the piezoelectric panels will have on roadways. Harvey explained, “The state just passed a $5 billion (per year) tax measure to fix roads, and one of the main things we want to do with pavement to keep it lasting longer and costing less is not put stuff in it that is potentially going to shorten its life.” Roadways are not meant to vibrate, which is the exact science that traffic to energy schemes rely on.
Most upsetting are the results from other pilot projects. The Associated Press reported in September 2016 that similar roadway technology in Israel and Italy have proven unsuccessful. Hopefully, the projects in California can learn from these mistakes, account for the skeptics’ concerns, and produce a viable form of renewable energy from California’s infamous gridlock.