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Turning freeways into electricity generating 'Solar Serpents'


November 8, 2010

Mans Tham's "Solar Serpents in Paradise" idea would see city freeways covered in solar panels

Mans Tham's "Solar Serpents in Paradise" idea would see city freeways covered in solar panels

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With solar power plants requiring large areas which aren't usually available in or close to urban areas, Sweden-based architect Mans Tham proposes cities like Los Angeles take a different road – covering the city’s freeways in solar panels. His "Solar Serpents in Paradise" idea would see 24km (15 miles) of LA's Santa Monica Freeway covered in solar panels – with an average width of 40m (131 ft), that adds up to an area of 960,000 m2 (10,333,354 Sq Ft), enough space for 600,000 domestic panels, which could generate 150 GWh per year. That's more than enough to provide electricity to all the households of Venice, California.

Tham points out that, due to space constraints, the Los Angeles Solar Program focuses on roofs on private and public buildings within the city and solar plants in the Mojave Desert. By covering the large areas dedicated to roads – Los Angeles County has around 800km (497 miles) – in solar panels, Tham says the city could take advantage of public land with existing points of access for maintenance for use as a large scale solar installation.

Aside from capturing solar energy, the “Solar Serpent” would also shade the roads and reduce the need for air conditioning in vehicles traveling under them. It would also allow charging stations to be placed under road overpasses for electric vehicles to recharge in addition to using the locally produced electricity to be used by local households and businesses with minimal transmission costs and loss of electricity due to transmission over long distance power lines.

Tham’s idea also proposes capturing the CO2 rich air from within the Solar Serpent to be piped into algae ponds positioned alongside the freeway to be used for processing biofuels and provide green jobs for neighborhoods that are currently some of the most disadvantaged due to their proximity to the freeway.

The project was exhibited during the Toward a Just Metropolis conference held at UC Berkely this year in June.

Via inhabitat

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag. All articles by Darren Quick

Brilliant. Another good idea: PV on the flat rooftops of commercial warehouse type buildings... reason: large enough collection area that converting DC from PV arrays to AC for grid tie-in can be done cost effectively, especially if multiple buildings are involved (as in an industrial park). Power generation close to point of use is always a good idea -reduces secondary costs, and losses from transmission lines.


Sounds a lot like my \'43 bridge idea to cover expressways, insulate the road sheds for sound proofing them in residential areas, and pipe collected air pollution through catalytic converters. Wow, this guy\'s a genius, too! Of course, I only thought of this ten years ago.


Why the authors of such \"brilliant ideas\" never try to calculate economic efficiency of their projects?

This particular one has a great windage. Hence it will be expensive in construction and building.

I never believe that generated power will even be compared to expenses!

Facebook User

It seems like a good idea, but when the cars are on the freeway end to end in a traffic jam would that take away from the solar panel\'s effectiveness? Unless...the cars all had solar collectors on their undersides and could then be using the power in that way. :) Some sort of panel to panel power sharing.

Carol Wilkerson

I suppose I should have read the whole article to know that the solar panels would be over the cars. Still, they\'d have to be earthquake proof and not fall on the cars. Nothing is earthquake proof though, is it?

Carol Wilkerson

I think it\'s a good idea but I could see the Los Angeles police department and to a lesser extent the media opposing this. With covered highways the effectiveness of police helicopters is diminished. The media won\'t be able to stalk celebrities with their choppers as easily too. No one would have see OJ in the white ford bronco on TV!


What is the cost per mile and how long will it take to start paying for itself? Until these questions can be answered, it\'s a pipe dream.


Wow...this is weak. So totally ridiculous. Anybody can come up with foolish ideas to generate tons of clean energy. Like building a solar collector in space. Or drilling a hole into the earths core to get to the unlimited supply of heat energy. So weak. Not feasible. At least not now, but this one, most likely never. I guess trying different approaches is a good idea. But ridiculous ideas like this makes the man in the street think it\'s easy to garner green energy.


To Habakak:

If the idea is so \"weak\", what do you propose? apparently you believe that you have some sort of special insight into the problem, so let\'s hear it.

At least that is an idea, not just naysaying any idea someone else comes up with.

Darren Johnson

I like the idea and design. It caters for various purposes. Amazing.

Charmaine Lim

I\'m no scientist, but this sounds doable to me. Instead of building the next solar array in the US far from points of use, why not try this idea out over just a Turnpike toll area or junction? Also, how about extending it over a high density shopping strip along a highway?

My only question is the level of noise inside one of these?

Elizabeth Hagan

\"Wow, this guy\'s a genius, too! Of course, I only thought of this ten years ago.\"

@ TogetherinParis: Hey self-congratulating super genius, did you just think of it (yeah, I in passing, thoughts of something similar - anybody can \'think\' of anything and never say or do anything about it) or did you work out the details and actually make a presentation to anyone as Mr. Tham clearly has?

Get over yourself. Billions of people \'think\' of things all the time. It\'s not what people \'think\', it\'s what people \'do\' that makes a difference.

Just thoughts from another \'Thinker\'


Hey gang, fix your math or numbers please: "(15 miles) of LA's Santa Monica Freeway covered in solar panels with an average width of 40m (131 ft), that adds up to an area of 960,000 m2 (10,333 Sq Ft),"

15mi by 131 feet (79,200ft x 131ft) is 10,375,200 sq feet. Looks like you dropped a thousandplace... or the numbers in the article are wrong.

Thanks Robert - this error has been corrected. Ed.

Robert Mauro

Many people forget when they say cost effectively the \"other costs\" associated with health problems from breathing bad air made from burning fossil fuels. The costs of going to wars to protect oil sources. The costs are so huge if you put those into the equation that any alternative renewable resource is worth it. Great idea-the structure is sound in it\'s design, catch rainwater off it and have it feed gardens, put regenerative shocks in the roads where slowing down is required anyway, add thermal pipes in the exposed portions of the roads to capture the heat and provide ho water and electricity. Let\'s all use this kind of thinking!


Just creating the structure will make a large carbon footprint. Assuming diesel/bio-diesel and other petroleum vehicles will still be used you have soot to deal with. The high concentration of soot from the vehicles will accumulate on the panels and reduce their efficiency. The structure would have to compensate for a lot of vibration from all the traffic. It would have to be incredibly strong at the edges to handle accidents which means more energy expenditure in materials. I could imagine the thousands of idling vehicles and traffic jams construction of such a structure would cause as well. Just the fuel expended in its construction and the resulting chaos would limit the effectiveness of this. Imagine the I5 in California as they try to put something like this up!

Facebook User

\'Just creating the structure will make a large carbon footprint.\'

@ Todd Gehris: Is there any such thing as a powerplant that doesn\'t have a large carbon footprint? I mean, I can\'t imagine this being worse than building any other type of powerplant.


Yeah, at this point in time almost any renewable energy project has large amounts of embodied energy, bit it is usually similar to the amount present in fosil fuel burning plants. Todd Gehris has a good point though. Soot would eventually render the panels almost completely inefficient. However, the article spoke of creating jobs for the neighborhoods near the freeways... A small team of people could be hired per 'x' stretch of freeway to keep them clean much in the same way a window washer works in any city with tall skyscrapers. The idea is sound, and with a little more attention paid to aesthetics by the architect, this could be an attractive and pleasant screen to drive underneath. Maybe something as simple as providing breaks in the panels to create a pattern or something. Bravo! I think it's really an interesting idea!

Nathan Weber

For the soot problem, might I direct you folks to another article published recently: http://www.gizmag.com/nanotextured-multifunctional-glass/22339/

Not an issue as long as they use this kind of glass on the panels, and it rains once in a while.

Joel Detrow
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