Four years ago, Scott and Julie Brusaw announced their provocative concept of "Solar Roadways," a system of modular ‘pavement’ solar panels that could be installed directly onto roads, parking lots, driveways, bike paths, and “literally any surface under the sun." The idea got traction (no pun intended) and since then, the Brusaws have received two rounds of funding from the Federal Highway Administration as well as a private grant to develop their project.
The concept of solar roadways may sound too good to be true …but is it? Scott and Julie Brusaw, co-inventors of Solar Roadways, have been working on the project since 2009. Basically, solar roadways can be almost anywhere; parking lots, driveways, highways, roads, etc… made out of photovoltaic panels. The team has done some calculations; they’re premise is based on the idea that there is approximately 31,000 square miles of usable road surfaces in the US, and if all of these were covered the Solar Roadways system could produce over three times the electricity that is used by the entire country. That’s an incredible potential and even if only a fraction of that space were converted, it could lead to a huge paradigm shift in several economic equations …not just energy.
The hexagonal panels, made of glass may look fragile, but are designed to be driven on have been rigorously tested for safety and durability. They have proven to be as good or better than asphalt or concrete. The panels have been tested for traction, load testing, and impact resistance. They’re supposed to withstand a 250,000-pound load, typical of the heaviest trucks. In fact, they’ve actually already developed a working prototype that’s been installed in a parking lot, and they’re now crowd sourcing funds in order to tweak the design and move towards production. Obviously, this project isn’t going to be cheap. Solar Roadways are hoping to raise $1 million on their indiegogo page so that they can hire engineers to make final modifications and move from prototype to production. They think that if they reach their target they should be able to begin installing projects at the end of the year.
Why Solar Roadways are a Big Deal
Imagine this …would you like to drive your electric car on roads that don't have potholes, don't need re-construction every year, roads that will ‘self clean’ snow or ice on them in the winter, and have illuminated lines that you can see? Solar roadways will be able to accomplish all of this with existing technology. When the panels get damaged, it would literally take just a few minutes for it to be replaced. The heating elements in the panels to rid the roads of ice and snow, not only making winter driving a lot safer, but imagine all the avoided expenses of keeping roads plowed! There are also imbedded LED lights instead of painted lines, and the lights can be programmed to changed, like at crosswalks, to alert drivers to pedestrians. They can also be used to alert drivers to deer and other animals on the road, saving lives and insurance money.
What about cost? The production costs of the panels are not yet known, but if estimates of the electricity generated were close to accurate, they would pay for themselves. They could also pay for themselves with advertising in parking lots, using the LED lights. Of course, the switch to solar roadways would be gradual and will have to prove viability before large scale adoption. Based on the mass potential, solar roadways would be able to provide enough solar power to power the entire United States, and then some. We could rely solely on a clean energy source; get away from foreign oil, and cut pollution and carbon emissions drastically. And because the solar roadways will be tied into the grid, another benefit is the decentralization of power generation, which increases energy security.
The Brusaws are surprisingly realistic about the consequences, intentional or not, of the Solar Roadways project. They have looked into what happens if the panels get dirty, if there are earthquakes, and other potential catastrophic scenarios. What about water runoff from melted ice/snow and rain? “A solution had to be found to remove or relocate the runoff water. We consulted with some water and forestry experts on the matter. We learned that if we could redirect water just 200 miles, then we could almost eliminate any drought condition. It will still be some time before every situation can be looked at, but it looks very promising in terms of safety, reliability, and cost-effectiveness”, said Scott.
A glass surface may sound fragile, but the prototypes have been tested and were found to be able to withstand even the heaviest trucks. Recycled materials can also be used to produce the panels; the prototypes were constructed using 10% recycled glass. All of the panels will be connected so faults can be easily detected and repaired. The team has also designed a place to stash power cables, called “Cable Corridors”, which would allow easy access by utility workers. Furthermore, they also believe that these corridors could be used to house fiber optic cables for high-speed Internet. Please check out the Solar Roadway website to learn more.
One final thought. The solar road surface could also be used to charge electric vehicles while driving via mutual induction panels. Amazingly, the team also found that car headlights could produce energy in the panels, so cars driving around at night would be producing some electricity.
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