Solar Roadways: A Vision of the Future or A Terrible Idea?

Since the mid-2000s Scott and Julie Brusaw, a couple from northern Idaho, have been developing a project called Solar Roadways. The idea and goal of the project is simple: replace all the sun-absorbing concrete and asphalt surfaces in the U.S. with solar panels. This would mean all roads, driveways, sidewalks, parking lots, playgrounds, airstrips, etc, would be replaced with hexagonal pieces of tempered glass over energy-producing solar panels. It would theoretically create three times more energy than the U.S. currently uses, and would effectively solve the clean energy problem. It would also include LED lights for changeable roadway markings, touch sensors that light up when a person or animal is on the roadway, heating systems to keep roads from freezing over, and the ability to put all aboveground power lines underground. For this idea, the couple have received some grants from the Department of Transportation ($850,00 total) which have been used to make a 12’ by 12’ prototype in their backyard. But this was not enough to get the project off the ground, so they started asking the public to fund further development. As of June 2014, their Indiegogo campaign surpassed 2.2 million. However, while 50,000 people were all too ready to donate to this utopian idea, there has been a serious amount of skepticism that has come to light and follow-up debunking of the scheme.

First, what most people and some experts have revealed is the fact that there are just too many things that could go wrong. The durability and strength of the proposed tempered glass is questionable, especially with solar panels underneath. What happens when the glass breaks? Power storage and distribution is another big question, as is getting remote roads wired into a bigger grid. Roads get a ton of wear and tear, so there is the concern of having computerized roads constantly breaking and having specialists to fix them. And there may possibly be a constant whine that vehicles going over the hexagons will make?

Second, the cost of the entire project just makes it sound incredibly unreasonable: the couple originally estimated the cost of a 12’ by 12’ square to be $10,000. Working out the math, replacing around 30,000 miles of paved road in the continental U.S. would be a whopping $56 trillion. This makes the claim that the solar roadways will “pay for themselves” in the video above look somewhat less appealing.

That being said, the cost of solar panels is at an all-time low right now, and the market has completely opened up. The market value of all solar panel installations completed in 2013 in the U.S. was $13.7 billion and there were more solar panels installed in the U.S. in the last 18 months than in the last 30 years! There’s even more growth estimated for this year. It seems as if the technology for widespread clean energy already exists, and it’s not costing three times the national debt.

So while Solar Roadways sounds like an amazing, the-future-is-here idea (and yeah, it would be pretty cool if everything looked like TRON), right now it just does not seem feasible.

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