Latest batshit crazy eco-fantasy: Solar roadways

Solar Roadways passes $1.4 million in crowdfunding: Just short of the $56 trillion required, but not bad for a crazy idea

Over the weekend, the Solar Roadways project on Indiegogo reached its target of $1 million. At the time of publishing, that figure is now north of $1.4 million, with five days left to go. The concept is verging on utopian: By replacing the USA’s concrete and asphalt roads with solar panels, we could produce three times more electricity than we consume, instantly solving just about every energy problem we have (geopolitical stuff, reliance on fossil fuels, CO2 production, etc.) It’s not hard to see why Solar Roadways has attracted so much attention and money: On paper, it really does sound like one of the greatest inventions ever. In reality, though, where, you know, real-world factors come into play, it will probably never make the jump from drawing board to large-scale deployment.

Solar Roadways, the brainchild of Julie and Scott Brusaw of Idaho, have been in development since at least the mid-2000s. The concept, as described by dozens of videos and blog posts over the years, is pretty simple: We replace roads with hard-wearing solar cells. By adding other electronics, such as LEDs and touch sensors, additional functionality has also been mooted: Illuminated road markings (and animals crossing the road), roads that melt snow and ice, and so on. Electrified/networked roads could also be a key step towards self-driving cars and wide-scale EV adoption.

To be fair to the Brusaws, they’re not exactly scammers — Scott is an electrical engineer, and most of the science checks out — but so far, despite $850,000 in grants from the Department of Transport, the couple have only built a small prototype parking lot. TheIndiegogo page doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, either. Right at the bottom of the page, there’s a single line describing what the $1 million (and counting) will be spent on: “We asked for $1 million to hire an initial team of engineers to help us make a few needed tweaks in our product and streamline our process so that we could go from prototype to production.”

These engineers will be tasked with the rather difficult task of turning Solar Roadways from a utopian concept into a real-world product. I do not envy them. While no one is arguing that it would be great to turn our road system into a massive solar farm, there are simply way too many obstacles that need to be traversed — much like fusion powercold fusion, or heck, building a frickin’ star-encompassing Dyson sphere. Chief among these obstacles is cost. While exact figures are hard to come by, there’s roughly 29,000 square miles (75,000 sq km) of paved road in the lower 48 US states. As you can probably imagine, asphalt is pretty cheap (on the order of a few dollars per square foot) — and Solar Roadways, which are essentially solar cells wedged between thick slabs of ultra-tough glass, are not cheap. Back in 2010, Scott Brusaw estimated a cost of $10,000 for a 12-foot-by-12-foot segment of Solar Roadway, or around $70 per square foot; asphalt, on the other hand, is somewhere around $3 to $15, depending on the quality and strength of the road. According to some maths done by Aaron Saenz, the total cost to redo America’s roadways with Solar Roadways would be $56 trillion — or about four times the country’s national debt.

The top piece of tempered glass on a Solar Roadways panel

Beyond cost, there are other factors like strength and durability, how to store the power, how to wire remote stretches of road into the grid, and, perhaps most importantly, how to keep the roads clean. The Brusaws say the glass tiles can support 250,000 pounds (113,000 kilos), which is certainly enough for any vehicle that might use the US road system — but what about withstanding piercing impacts? What about chemical spills and fires? If a glass tile breaks, is it easy to fix? Will the shards puncture tires?

The only actual real-world Solar Roadways prototype: A small parking lot

To get around the roads-get-rather-dirty issue, Solar Roadways proposes using self-cleaning glass — but in a kind of hand-waving way that conveniently forgets that self-cleaning materials, by virtue of being oleo- and hydrophobic, are incredibly slippery. Sounds like the perfect way to make the morning commute a bit more exciting. Suffice it to say, dirty roads, broken roads, and roads that are too far away from civilization to be useful might as well make no power at all.

With all that said, there’s still no denying that Solar Roadways are cool — but why not just, I don’t know, put solar panels along the side of the road? Or on the roof of your house? Or in the desert? Having built-in ice and snow melting is pretty neat, and lighting up when an animal steps on the road is cute, but neither are worth $56 trillion. Rooftop solar arrays are reaching the point where they’re actuallyquite cost effective in certain parts of the world — and they’re much, much cheaper than building a Solar Roadway — but adoption is still very low. As much as I’d love the US to be blanketed in green, fossil fuel-replacing electrified Solar Roadways, it just isn’t feasible. On the small scale, there could well be some companies that roll out Solar Roadway parking lots — but I think that’s about it, for the foreseeable future.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s