JINAN, China — On a smoggy afternoon, huge log carriers and oil tankers thundered down a highway and hurtled around a curve at the bottom of a hill. Only a single, unreinforced guardrail stood between the traffic and a ravine.
The route could make for tough driving under any conditions. But experts are watching it for one feature in particular: The highway curve is paved with solar panels.
“If it can pass this test, it can fit all conditions,” said Li Wu, the chairman of Shandong Pavenergy, the company that made the plastic-covered solar panels that carpet the road. If his product fares well, it could have a major impact on the renewable energy sector, and on the driving experience, too.
The experiment is the latest sign of China’s desire to innovate in, and dominate, the increasingly lucrative and strategically important market for renewable energy. The country already produces three-quarters of the solar panels sold globally, and its wind-turbine manufacturing industry is also among the world’s largest.
The potential appeal of solar roads — modified solar panels that are installed in place of asphalt — is clear. Generating electricity from highways and streets, rather than in fields and deserts packed with solar panels, could conserve a lot of land. Those advantages are particularly important in a place like China, a heavily populated country where demand for energy has risen rapidly.