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New road to tapping solar energy

Dutch firm's system harnesses heat from hot asphalt to warm buildings.

January 20, 2008|Arthur Max | Associated Press

SCHARWOUDE, NETHERLANDS — If you've ever walked barefoot outside on a hot day, you know how asphalt absorbs the sun's rays. Now, a Dutch company is siphoning the heat from roads and parking lots to heat homes and offices.

As climate change rises on the international agenda, the system built by a civil engineering firm, Ooms Avenhorn Holding BV, doesn't look as wacky as it might have 10 years ago when it was conceived.

Solar energy collected from a 200-yard stretch of road and a small parking lot helps heat a 70-unit four-story apartment building in the northern village of Avenhorn. An industrial park of about 160,000 square feet in the nearby city of Hoorn is kept warm in winter with the help of heat stored during the summer from 36,000 square feet of pavement. The runways of a Dutch air force base supply heat for its hangar.

And all that despite the Netherlands' normally cloudy skies, with only a few days a year of truly sweltering temperatures.

The Road Energy System is one of the more unusual ways scientists and engineers are trying to harness the power of the sun, the most plentiful, reliable, accessible and inexhaustible source of renewable energy -- radiating to Earth more watts in one hour than the world can use in a year.

But today, solar power provides just 0.04% of global energy, held back by high costs and low efficiency rates.

Solar advocates say that will change within a few years.

Other renewable sources have drawbacks: Not every place is breezy enough for wind turbines; waves and tides are good only for coastal regions; hydroelectricity requires rivers and increasingly objectionable dams; biofuels take up land needed to grow food.

"But solar falls everywhere," says Patrick Mazza of Climate Solutions, a consultancy group in Seattle.

Compared with other energy sources, "solar comes out as the one with the real heavy lift. It's the one we really need to get at," he said in an interview.

Ooms' thermal energy system is too expensive and inefficient to solve the world's energy problems. In fact, it was actually a spin-off from a method to reduce road maintenance.

A latticework of flexible plastic pipes, held in place by a plastic grid, is covered by asphalt, which magnifies the sun's thermal power. As water in the pipes is heated, it is pumped deep under the ground to natural aquifers where it maintains a fairly constant temperature of about 68 degrees Farenheit. The heated water can be retrieved months later to heat the road surface to keep it ice-free in winter. The reverse can be done in summer to prevent the asphalt melting.

The same system pumps cold water from a separate subterranean reservoir to cool buildings on hot days.

Though it doubles the cost of construction, the system's first benefits are a longer life for roads and bridges, fewer ice-related accidents and less need to repave worn surfaces.

"We found we were gathering more energy in summer than we needed, so we asked a building contractor what we could do with the extra energy," said Lex Van Zaane, the commercial manager. The answer was to construct buildings near the tarmac and pipe hot water under the floor.

The water usually isn't hot enough on its own, and must go through an electricity-powered heat pump for an extra boost, Van Zaane said. The installation cost is about twice as much as normal gas heating, but the energy required is about half. That translates into lower monthly heating bills and a 50% reduction in carbon emissions.

Rooftop solar water heaters have been standard in some countries for decades. In 1954 Bell Labs created photovoltaic cells, which use sunlight to generate electric current.

But it is only in the last decade that researchers have begun raising the efficiency of photovoltaic cells to generate electricity, and new technologies aim to make them commercially competitive.

Experimental technologies involve new methods to concentrate the sun's energy by using mirrors or lenses, or devices that track the sun's path across the sky. New materials are being developed to make better cells. And scientists are working with electrochemical cells using a liquid rather than a solid component to absorb light.

"The prospect of relying on the sun for all our power demands is finally becoming realistic," says the New Scientist.

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