The Washington Post

Walking on sunshine at GWU’s Virginia campus

Midway between Exploration and Innovation halls, on George Washington University’s Virginia Campus for Science and Technology, sit 27 ground-level glass-topped panels. They might look a little forlorn right now, because the bench to which they lead hasn’t been installed. But this is the first walkable solar-power sidewalk in the world.

“Our current campus is rather sprawling, and we were trying to create a campus environment [with] more pedestrian-scale amenities,” Eric Selbst, George Washington University senior land-use planner, said of the Ashburn facility, which is partly a retrofitted office park.

“We were looking for opportunities to integrate the theme of science and technology. We came up with an idea to have a walkway with solar panels on it.”

The first element of this project was a solar trellis, installed in 2012. A wooden frame topped with photovoltaic panels, the structure produces an average 430 kilowatts per month of power, which flows to nearby Innovation Hall.

Then the maker of the trellis’s panels, Spain’s Onyx Solar, approached the university’s designer, Studio39 Landscape Architecture, with the sidewalk proposal. The walkable panels, which are non-slip and can withstand up to 880 pounds of pressure, had been installed on two roofs. But this is their first use on a sidewalk.

The 100-square-foot walkway, inaugurated in October, will produce only about one-tenth as much electricity as the trellis, and will power just the 450 light-emitting diodes beneath them. After dark, light glows through the panels, illuminating the area.

“It’s self-sustaining and provides lighting for the pathway,” Selbst said.

The Ashburn campus, which opened in 1991, remains a work in progress. The solar sidewalk is adjacent to a grassy field. Two or three buildings might rise between Exploration and Innovation halls, Selbst said, but plans have not been made.

In part, the Virginia campus functions as a back office for the university’s main location, in the District’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood. In addition to two academic buildings, the Ashburn site is home to administrative and financial staff members. Nearly complete is a structure with storage and conservation facilities for the relocated Textile Museum, which will open its new galleries on the Foggy Bottom campus in the fall.

The Ashburn location has GWU’s nursing school and a National Transportation Safety Board crash-test facility, but no dormitories. It’s strictly a commuter school, with regular free shuttle buses to Foggy Bottom.

Selbst said the university is working with Virginia’s Department of Transportation to reduce the width of George Washington Boulevard, which traverses the campus, adding sidewalks and perhaps a bike trail.

At Foggy Bottom, GWU has installed solar water heaters atop residence halls. But a solar sidewalk there is unlikely, Selbst said.

“I imagine that it would be a little more difficult to install in our Foggy Bottom campus,” he said, citing D.C. requirements. “Putting it on a public sidewalk would just be difficult. Perhaps if we had a project where there was a plaza, offset from the public sidewalk, we could consider it.”

For now, Ashburn’s solar sidewalk remains a singular demonstration project. “We do not have plans for additional walkable panels,” Selbst said. “When we go through further design studies, it’s something we will consider installing.”


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