Luke Ottaway's picture

Solar Roadways would be great, and just might happen

You may have heard the idea of replacing many of America’s roads with durable solar panels that could generate electricity. It’s a great idea, and here’s why it could work.
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Solar roads are a concept that has been thrown about for a long time but never really seemed feasible on a large scale. But now a miniscule startup company is making a convincing case for the technology; a successful prototype and crowdfunding campaign means it may be time to take this Solar Roadways idea seriously.

Imagine a futuristic United States where every road you drive on is made of smart interconnected tiles generating electricity that will power not only your car but also the entire country, harnessing the power of the sun to eliminate 75% of man-made carbon dioxide emissions. This utopia is a real possibility, according to Idaho-based Solar Roadways and its founders, Scott and Julie Brusaw.

On Monday we laid out the reasons that the aforementioned Solar Roadways, described in full in this entertaining video, are too ambitious to become a reality on the grand scale that would be necessary for the system to reach its full potential. Now, however, we will do our best to refute our previous arguments and provide a more optimistic outlook for the future of roads, driveways and parking lots that could double as the entire electricity generation sector.

Enormous potential for electricity generation

An analysis conducted by Solar Roadways estimates that there are currently over 30,000 square miles of roads, parking lots, driveways, and sidewalks in the United States that would be available for upgrading. Making a lot of conservative and reasonable assumptions (check out the full analysis here) the group estimates that converting all of those surfaces to Solar Roadways would produce enough electricity to meet the generation needs of the U.S. more than three times over.

So in theory, rebuilding just 1/3 of our nation’s paved surfaces with solar panels would provide 100% of the electricity we consume.

Not only that, such a change could replace our aging electricity grid and allow smart grid technology to take off. To be fair, electricity would still have to be transported to where it is needed, although fortunately roads and parking lots are most heavily concentrated in areas where people live.

Another problem would be energy storage so that excess electricity generated during the day could be used at night. But even with the most ambitious outlook, by the time any variation of the Solar Roadways concept makes it to large-scale production energy storage technology (i.e. batteries) surely will have advanced in leaps and bounds.

Technological challenges are surmountable

As noted in the previous post, the technical challenges with this technology are surmountable. What amounts to a few people working in a garage in Idaho has produced a prototype design that is obviously not yet perfected, but has overcome most of the engineering obstacles it was presented with.

Even assuming the humble efficiencies of today’s commodity solar cells, the solar exposure of a parking lot in northern Idaho during the middle of winter, the further efficiency reduction from the necessary tempered glass protective covering, including overcast days (which still generate electricity, by the way) – even accounting for all of that, the company still found its tiles could triple the nation’s electricity needs.

Yes, there will be grumblings from self-proclaimed authorities on various technical aspects of the Solar Roadways concept, particularly along the lines of “compare it to how much a bucket of asphalt costs” and “those tiles won’t last five years” and so on. I will direct an exasperated sigh at those people.

Because this concept, which has been developed with pennies compared to the collective intellectual and monetary resources of our formidable innovators and industries, can be adapted and improved and will overwhelm whatever technical challenges it will face if given the opportunity. It is already close. And roads that generate electricity are considerably more valuable than the steamrolled buckets of asphalt that currently make up our road system.

What needs to happen for Solar Roadways to become reality

It is not the technical challenges that present the biggest roadblock to Solar Roadways. It is a lack of collective purpose, motivation and conviction. Committing, and I mean truly committing, to such a transformation of our infrastructure is almost beyond the scope of imagination given the current climate of politics and the influence of the heavy hitters that love the status quo and are very invested in keeping things the way they are.

It would certainly challenge our economy. Replacing 1/3 of our roads and parking lots with tricked-out heavy duty solar panels would be far from cheap. But as Solar Roadways points out, the benefits of the system as a whole must be taken into consideration. They aren’t just roads; they’re a new way of creating and delivering electricity that doesn’t pollute or accelerate global warming, their heating elements would eliminate the expense of snow removal, they would provide safer driving conditions at night, they provide a decentralized power system, they would make electric vehicles the only logical choice. Did we mention the human and environmental health benefits of virtually eliminating the burning of fossil fuels?

I will also concede that it sure would be nice if we could just put solar panels on everybody’s roof instead so that we wouldn’t have to drive over them. However, putting solar panels on the roof of every suburban home in America wouldn’t meet our electricity needs. Not even close. But roads that double as solar panels? Replace 1/3 of our paved surfaces with them and you have enough electricity to power a nation.

The wild card: climate change

To close, I’ll point out that consideration of any currently radical and far-off transformation of our energy industry will look a lot different five, ten, twenty years from now. Sadly, we as a nation, and particularly as a government, are not yet convinced that climate change is a real threat. I believe the tide is turning, though, and as the effects of a warming planet intensify there will undoubtedly be a heightened urgency to do something about it in the coming years and decades.

Under the best-case scenario, Solar Roadways or a similar technology won’t arrive on a scale larger than the occasional parking lot or small town for at least a decade, more likely two. But we would be fools if we presumed to know what the world will be like ten or more years from now. And that is why I believe Solar Roadways have a real chance.

Here’s one optimist’s bold and crazy prediction: Solar Roadways and climate change will team up to form an unlikely (or perhaps likely) combination that will drastically change the way we travel and generate electricity. They will develop in parallel, as technological advancements from many different sources make Solar Roadways more efficient and cost effective while escalating climate change at last scares us into meaningful action to combat carbon emissions.

Call me crazy if you wish; I suppose I have already conceded that point. I’d prefer the term optimistic. But no matter how skeptical you are, you should be pulling for Solar Roadways to succeed. Everyone loves an underdog.


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Comments

Love you article about Solar Roadways. Do you think they will remain independent and receive government funding for further research and testing? Is it conceivable that a company that wants things to stay as they are will buy Solar Roadways and put their patent on the shelf? Just some thoughts. Great concept. Christa Linderer
This is maybe the best and most intelligent article I have read about Solar Roadways so far.