It cost 5 million euros to construct and will be used by about 2,000 motorists a day during a two-year test period to establish if it can generate enough energy to power street lighting

France on Dec 22 inaugurated the world’s first “solar highway”, a road paved with solar panels providing enough energy to power the street lights of the small Normandy town of Tourouvre.

A 1km route in the small village of Tourouvre-au-Perche covered with 2,800 sq m of electricity-generating panels, was inaugurated on Dec 22, by the ecology minister, Ségolène Royal.

It cost 5 million euros to construct and will be used by about 2,000 motorists a day during a two-year test period to establish if it can generate enough energy to power street lighting in the village of 3,400 residents.

In 2014, a solar-powered cycle path opened in Krommenie in the Netherlands and, despite teething problems, has generated 3,000kWh of energy – enough to power an average family home for a year. The cost of building the cycle path, however, could have paid for 520,000kWh.

Before the solar-powered road – called Wattway – was opened on the RD5 road, the panels were tested at four car parks across France. The constructor was Colas, part of giant telecoms group Bouygues, and financed by the state.

An average of 2,000 cars use the road in Tourouvre each day, testing the resistance of the panels for the project carried out by French civil engineering firm Colas, a subsidiary of construction giant Bouygues.

The idea, which is also under exploration in Germany, the Netherlands and the United States, is that roadways are occupied by cars only around 20% of the time, providing vast expanses of surface to soak up the sun’s rays.

Normandy is not known for its surfeit of sunshine: Caen, the region’s political capital, enjoys just 44 days of strong sunshine a year compared with 170 in Marseilles. Royal has said she would like to see solar panels installed on one in every 1,000km of French highway – France has a total of 1m km of roads – but panels laid on flat surfaces have been found to be less efficient than those installed on sloping areas such as roofs.

Critics say it is not a cost-effective use of public money. Marc Jedliczka, vice-president of Network for Energetic Transition told Le Monde, “It’s without doubt a technical advance, but in order to develop renewables there are other priorities than a gadget of which we are more certain that it’s very expensive than the fact it works.”

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