Solar road provides a vision of the future in China

22 June, 2018
Annie Sherring

The road to China’s autonomous-driving future is paved with solar panels, mapping sensors and electric-battery rechargers as the nation tests an “intelligent highway” that could speed the transformation of the global transportation industry.

The technologies will be embedded underneath transparent concrete used to build a 1,080-meter-long (3,540-foot-long) stretch of road in the eastern city of Jinan. About 45,000 vehicles barrel over the section every day, and the solar panels inside generate enough electricity to power highway lights and 800 homes, according to builder Qilu Transportation Development Group Co.

Cars drive adjacent to the photovoltaic lanes on Qilu Transportation’s highway in Jinan, China.

Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

Yet Qilu Transportation wants to do more than supply juice to the grid: it wants the road to be just as smart as the vehicles of the future. The government says 10 percent of all cars should be fully self-driving by 2030, and Qilu considers that an opportunity to deliver better traffic updates, more accurate mapping and on-the-go recharging of electric-vehicle batteries—all from the ground up.

“The highways we have been using can only carry vehicles passing by, and they are like the 1.0-generation product,” said Zhou Yong, the company’s general manager. “We’re working on the 2.0 and 3.0 generations by transplanting brains and a nervous system.”

The construction comes as President Xi Jinping’s government pushes ahead with a “Made in China 2025” plan to help the nation become an advanced manufacturing power and not just a supplier of sneakers, clothes and toys for export. The 10 sectors highlighted include new-energy vehicles, information technology and robotics.

Photovoltaic cells under transparent material.

Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

China also has a separate plan for developing its artificial-intelligence industry that calls for the nation to be the world’s primary AI innovation center by 2030.

Part of that effort involves building what the government calls an intelligent transportation system. Coordinating the development of autonomous-driving cars and intelligent-road systems is a focus, said Yuan Peng, the deputy head of the transportation ministry’s science and technology department.

“The ministry will help offer smart roads for the smart cars that are coming,” Yuan said.

Step one makes up a section of the expressway surrounding Jinan, an old industrial hub of about 7 million people that’s home to China National Heavy Duty Truck Group, which is also known as Sinotruk and includes Volkswagen AG’s MAN SE as a minority shareholder. Zhejiang Geely Holding Group also has a plant there making Geely brand cars.

The road has three vertical layers, with the shell of see-through material allowing sunlight to reach the solar cells underneath. The top layer also has space inside to thread recharging wires and sensors that monitor temperature, traffic flow and weight load.

The solar panels spread across two lanes, which feel no different to a driver than the regular road, and are thinner than a 1-yuan coin standing on its edge. The test road is too short to deliver wireless recharging at the moment, Zhou said.

The two lanes of solar panels.

Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

“From the angle of the technology itself, charging is not a problem,” Zhou said. “The vehicles that can be charged wirelessly aren’t used on roads yet.”

QuicktakeElectric cars

Qilu Transportation didn’t give a time frame for installing the sensors to transmit data and power to EV batteries. The road has an estimated life span of 15 years, matching that of traditional asphalt highways.

“The solar expressway does have market opportunities,” said Xu Yingbo, an analyst with Citic Securities Co. in Beijing. “The key things that need to be addressed are costs and reliability, as well as how quickly it can have the compatible system in place.”

In 2016, French construction company Bouygues SA started testing a 1-kilometer road in Normandy with solar panels layered on top. Tests of the Wattway road since have expanded to 20 locations, said Etienne Gaudin, who oversees the project at Bouygues’ Colas Group road-work division.

Wattway’s focus is generating electricity, and the company has no immediate plans to charge moving EVs, he said. Colas will start selling the project next year, prioritizing smaller locations such as charging stations and parking lots where traffic won’t block sunlight, Gaudin said.

China will have 30 million vehicles with different levels of autonomous features by 2025, said Yu Kai, founder of Horizon Robotics Inc., a Beijing-based startup developingsemiconductors for those types of cars.

A monitor shows the amount of energy generated by the solar panels.

Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

The stretch of road in Jinan cost about 7,000 yuan per square meter to build, Zhou said, making the total cost about 41 million yuan ($6.5 million), according to Bloomberg News calculations. The threshold for mass adoption of the technology is about 3,000 yuan per square meter, the company said.

The initial costs are high because Qilu’s research-and-development team developed the technology and made the materials in its own laboratories, and the costs should come down as the components are mass produced, Zhou said. Qilu is owned by the government of Shandong province, which includes Jinan.

Researchers started working on the project 10 years ago. Construction took 55 days on an existing part of the highway, and the road opened to traffic in December. Solar-powered heating elements keep the section snow- and ice-free.

“In the future, when cars are running on these roads, it will be like human beings,” Zhou said. “The road will feel and think to figure out how heavy the vehicles are and what kind of data is needed.”

Photovoltaics cover a 1,080-meter-long stretch of the road.

Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

Qilu said it is cooperating with several domestic automakers on the technology but declined to elaborate.

China accounts for half of all EV sales worldwide. It surpassed the U.S. in 2015 to become the world’s biggest market for electric cars, with sales of new-energy vehicles—a category that includes battery-powered, plug-in hybrid and fuel cell cars—possibly surpassing 1 million this year, according to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers.

The government set a sales target of 7 million NEVs by 2020.

“The future of transportation is coming to us much faster than we expected,” Zhou said. “We need to make sure that roads are evolved to match the development of autonomous-driving vehicles.”

GCL-Poly posts expected strong shipments and revenue in 1H 2016

26 August, 2016

Leading polysilicon and multicrystalline wafer producer GCL-Poly Energy Holdings has reported first half 2016 financial results that as expected benefited from the downstream boom in China that kept both polysilicon and wafer prices high. 

GCL-Poly reported total Group revenue in the first half of 2016 of RMB 13,159 million (US$1.97 billion), up 28.7%, compared to US$1.53 billion in the prior year period. 

Net profit was RMB 1,389 million (US$208.7 million), up 137.6%, compared to the prior year period. 

Solar Material Business segment reported polysilicon annual production capacity remained at 70,000MT and operated at full capacity through the period. A total of approximately 36,328MT of polysilicon was produced in the period, slightly lower than the 36,768MT for the same period in 2015. 

GCL-Poly sold 6,389MT of polysilicon to third parties in the first half of the year. The average selling price of polysilicon was US$15.3/kg in the reporting period.

The Group’s annual wafer production capacity increased to 17GW (including 16GW for multicrystalline silicon wafer production and 1GW for monocrystalline silicon wafer production at the end of the first half of 2016.

GCL-Poly produced approximately 8,643MW of wafers (including processing business with supplied materials), representing an increase of 21.7% from 7,102MW in the prior year period. 

The average selling price wafers were approximately US$0.187/W for the six months ended 30 June 2016. 

GCL-Poly noted that the strong increase in volume sales and an increase in wafer ASP’s in the first half of 2016, led to external customers sales reaching RMB 11,221 million (US$1.68 billion), up 24.4% from US$1.34 billion in the prior year period.

The net profit margin in its Solar Material Business segment was 15.6%, compared with a net profit margin of 8.7% in the same period in 2015. 

Management claimed that its global market share of polysilicon and wafer sectors reached 30% and 40%, respectively, retaining its leadership position in both sectors.

The company as expected did not provide a business outlook for the full-year and did not provide commentary on the rapidly changing dynamics, notably in the wafer sector where ASP’s are expected to decline around 20% in the third quarter on the back of weak demand and polysilicon price declines expected to take holed in the fourth quarter of the year.