Solar energy is considered an excellent solution for a sustainable future. But what to do when the available rooftop areas on which panels are installed run out? It’s very simple: Go out on to the street. Or at least that is the solution from the German start-up Solmove GmbH. It is one of five companies worldwide (among which also Dutch Solaroad) that would like to equip existing road networks with solar mats. But the German technology goes one better: Their solar panel version is also aiming for a digital network.
Dipl.-Ing. (FH) Donald Müller-Judex, company founder in a telephone interview with Innovation Origins:
How did you come up with the idea to set up Solmove?
It was more of a stroke of luck: I was actually driving my car through the Allgäu region a few years ago, in 2009 to be precise, in order to locate rooftops for a solar-power system. I passed through small towns and cities, but the search was unsuccessful. For about three days I was on secluded, sunlit municipal roads and traveling through industrial areas, when I wondered for the first time whether it might be possible to use these roads for photovoltaic modules.
I did some research. Did you know, for instance, that in Germany there are about 50 times more road surfaces in residential and commercial areas than there are on highways? (Current figures according to the German Wikipedia site: 231,000 km for supra-regional road networks (including approx. 120,000 km of autobahn) versus 413000 km for municipal roads).
What makes the Solmove Module so special compared to other products?
There are currently five solar power street suppliers worldwide. In comparison to our competitors, we have other plans which are in line with the multipurpose nature of our photovoltaic modules (PV). For example, as well as generating electricity and heat, these modules should also be able to transmit data so that they can be used for other applications. We are considering, so to speak, the construction of Smart Surfaces 4.0, which will initially generate data, but process it too. In this way, traffic lights could be operated more efficiently depending on traffic, or pedestrian crossings could be activated as soon as children are on the street, for instance.
An additionl advantage: Our surface is quite flexible. Many glass-glass modules approximately the size of beer tops are connected to each other in a dynamic way. This means that you can adapt them to the current conditions. So the roads won’t require any extra maintenance. They are also able to withstand environmental factors such as frost, dirt and salt. And of course, each module is equipped with a non-slip coating, which is particularly effective in wet conditions. Practically speaking, our solar mats will actually save you a lot of time, money and salt, since the modules are able be warmed up.
What was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome at the start?
The worst thing for me was the battle with the skeptics. Just think about it: we were still at the early stages of our invention. It’s normal to find the right path forward and adapt technical concepts along the way through trial and error. But there are people who do not understand this principle. We noticed this especially with our first test track in Cologne Erftstadt, which we opened in November 2018. Local residents had followed our work. And when things weren’t expanded further, one or two people came up with harsh criticism. But the firm belief in one’s own vision is a powerful force when it comes to overcoming even the most difficult of obstacles. Innovations need courage and imagination. Not everyone has them.
Not so long ago, few would have imagined that one day we would one day use telephones for navigation or as cameras.
Was there a moment when you wanted to give up??
Doubts are often greatest at night. Yet by the morning, renewed energy puts us back on track.
And vice versa: what has been the best moment for you with your start-up, what are you particularly proud of?
That was the moment when even the Federal Environment Minister came to Erftstadt for the inauguration of the cycle track. Of course, she was not there unexpectedly. She had registered in advance. Yet nevertheless, for me personally, her presence was a wonderful indication of the high level of appreciation for our work.
What can we look forward to in the near future, i.e. what can we expect from you in the coming years?
We are currently working on a project in Los Angeles. A city that has many streets and a lot of sun but at the same time also needs a lot of energy. Solar energy is to be converted into electricity in a test facility. The desired side effect is that the solar surface does not heat up as much as a normal street. In the long run, this could help to lower the temperature in the city.
What is your vision: Where do you see Solmove in 5 years and what is your ultimate goal?
Now that our modules are capable of generating electricity and heat, the next step is to make data transmission possible and to use it accordingly. Above all, the combination of various features is certainly a challenging task.
And at some point, provided that the EMVG – the German directive on electromagnetic compatibilty – permits it, that the electricity generated can be transmitted via induction to vehicles.
I also think that energy and mobility issues are creating new models. For example, where neighbours share electricity, their connection device is the actual street. Consequently, solar-powered roads will provide an infrastructure consisting of electricity and data networks.
At Solmove, it’s about bringing the idea, our technology, to the world and becoming economically viable.
“And I personally dream of one day driving just with the force of the sun and virtually gliding silently through the countryside. Because our solar modules already absorb sound, and in the future they will power electric vehicles, which are already quiet. The name Solmove literally means ‘moved by the sun’.”
- Founder: Dipl.-Ing. (FH) Donald Müller-Judex, Maschinenbau
- Year of foundation: 2014
- Funding: private equity, Brandenburg Investments, 2016
- Number of employees: 4 people
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