Nothing would be cooler than solar roads that generate the electricity for our no-emissions, self-driving electric cars. The grass would be green, the sky would be bluer. Technology would usher us from this dismal age of potholes, smog, and traffic jams into a Shangri-La of smart infrastructure and a dainty carbon footprint.
This is the goal of engineers Julie and Scott Brusaw of Solar Roadways, an Idaho-based start-up that has raised over $2 million on Indiegogo to fund their interlocking hexagonal solar panels embedded with LED lights and heat elements. They developed a working prototype via a Federal Highway Administration grant, which is demonstrated in the somewhat tongue-in-cheek video “Solar FREAKIN’ Roadways”:
Here’s their pitch:
- Solar panels can replace any hard surface: roads, sidewalks, bike paths, driveways, parking lots, tarmacs, basketball courts, etc.
- Private investors will be the early adopters, public infrastructure adoption will come later.
- Panels will be manufactured using recycled materials, especially for the tempered glass surface.
- LED lights can be programmed for various configurations for parking, lanes, and to warn drivers if sensors detect an obstacle. LED lights will provide improved nighttime visibility.
- Manufacturing panels will create tons of jobs
- Heating elements will melt snow and ice, thereby saving communities the costs associated with salt and plowing, not to mention preventing corrosion on automobiles.
- Parallel corridors flanking the solar roadway will provide access to power cables and other utilities, eliminating the need for and dangers associated with telephone poles.
- Water and snow runoff will be channeled to treatment facilities, rather than into nearby waterways.
- Solar roadways uses existing spaces to generate electricity, rather than requiring the development of pristine land for solar farms.
- Solar roadways will pay for themselves over time.
Scott Brusaw tells his story in this TEDxSacramento talk, where he outlines his inspiration in slot cars and his learning curve on pitching to politicians. His wide-eyed idealism is commendable; how else does the world ever change? But what viewers are left with is the feeling that Solar Roadways is an idea that is still very much attached to the drawing board.
Enter the Naysayers
Could anything be more expensive than replacing the nation’s roads with something as expensive as an energy-producing computer chip that you can drive on? David Forbes, as quoted on Jalopnik, hates the Solar Roadways idea, and he’s an electrical engineer who lives in a solar-powered house. Forbes notes that Solar Roadways takes “the problem of generating solar power, and [puts] it into conditions that maximize cost.” On top of that, the labor involved in bolting hundreds of thousands of hexagonal tiles into concrete and constructing the raceways necessary for transferring all that golden solar energy to where it needs to go is practically insurmountable. Moreover:
The idea of having LED signage built into the panels is intriguing. Do you know the only electronic thing that’s more expensive per square foot than solar cells? Yup, you guessed it – LED signage. A few years ago, I built an LED-covered video coat. It cost $20,000 and it was only big enough to cover my body. Multiply that by a billion.
That’s just the beginning of Forbes’s criticisms, which include queries about dirt reducing effectiveness and so forth, and his isn’t alone. Sebastian Anthony, writing in the ExtremeTech blog, notes that “Solar Roadways passes $1.4 million in crowdfunding: Just short of the $56 trillion required, but not bad for a crazy idea.” More temperate in his criticism was Eric Weaver, a Federal Highway Administration research engineer who tested the Solar Roadways panels. “I’d say it’s not very realistic to cover the entire highway system with these panels,” he says in a column for Green Tech Media. “[But] if you don’t reach for something, you’ll never get there. Just the effort of doing something new creates byproducts.”
The Dutch Did It First
What if I told you a solar bike path already exists? In November, 2014, a 230-foot long solar-powered section of a bike path in the town of Krommenie, just north of Amsterdam, opened to two-wheeled traffic. The technology was created by Dutch company SolaRoad. Total cost: $3.7 million. That’s $16,087 per foot. For a bike path. It was mostly paid for by the local government, because who else has $16,087 to shell out for one foot of bike path?
The path features silicon solar cells embedded in safety glass that is mounted in concrete. The pathway generates enough electricity to power two to three houses for a year. It’s a great proof-of-concept, even though it doesn’t have many of the bells and whistles of the proposed Solar Roadways panels.
For my 2 cents, I’m going with Weaver and his Kermit the Frog-like optimism. The world needs dreamers and believers in rainbows. We need mad scientists who won’t quit when others call them crazy. We need people like Alexander Fleming, who accidentally created penicillin by failing to clean his petri dishes before taking a vacation in 1928, thereby launching the antibiotic age that has saved millions of lives. Maybe the Brusaws’ Solar Roadways won’t come to fruition, but can anyone doubt the usefulness of new technology being created in the pursuit of stemming climate change? Tech curmudgeons are on the wrong side of history, and they’re probably not much fun at parties either.
Kathy Wilson Peacock is a writer, editor, nature lover, and flaneur of the zeitgeist. She favors science over superstition and believes that knowledge is the best super power. Favorite secret weapon: A library card.