Could California Use High Trafficked Roads to Create Electricity?

The California Energy Commission has announced that they will invest $2 million in order to study whether piezoelectric crystals can generate electricity from the mechanical energy produced by cars driving on the roadways.

With the support of a university or business that will be responsible for field tests, the study will determine how the small crystals, which create energy when they are compressed, are capable of producing electricity for the grid if they are installed under asphalt.

Although scientists are aware that the technology does work, California must decide whether high returns can be produced without too high of a cost. Projects in other parts of the world that are similar to this one have been terminated.

Mike Gravely, the chief of energy research and development for the commission explained that it’s easy to see the opportunity in California. The commission hopes that the use of clean energy generated by the roads will help California reach its goal of using renewables to produce 50% of the state’s electricity by 2030.

Joe Mahoney, an engineering professor at University of Washington is unsure whether the technology can withstand the wear and tear of traffic. Mahoney explains that the highways need to be resurfaced every 10 to 30 years so we must consider which option would be longer lasting: the devices or the pavement.

There is also concern about whether the technology will be competitive enough with other renewables to justify a large investment. The commission’s $2 million to study the technology follows a number of projects in Israel, Tokyo, and Italy that have either been discontinued or failed.

Innowattech, an Israeli company was unsuccessful with a similar project and is currently undergoing liquidation. Innowattech also withdrew from its original plans to install its devices under a section of an Italian highway. The Israeli project inspired Mike Gatto, California Assemblyman to request funding from the energy commission for pilot projects in California.

Gatto explains that while it’s disheartening to find out that the Israeli project was a failure, he believes that there were funding restrictions that may have occurred in Israel that are not a problem in California. Gravely noted that despite the risks, trying new things is worth it.

A renewable investment fund by the California Public Utilities Commission will provide the $2 million to test the new technology. After bidding ends on November 18th, the contract will be awarded in the spring of 2017.

It will be interesting to see if other highly trafficked cities like Houston will consider a plan like this. It would make sense as thousands are cars and trucks are sitting around multiple hours every single day.

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