Like many people, when I first heard the story of Solar Roadways, I was exceedingly excited. Now, after thinking and reading more, I am merely excited. This is a simple idea with colossal possibilities – and a long way to go.
Solar Roadways is a small start-up company that proposes to turn the open road into vast stretches of solar panels, durable enough to drive on. The panels would lie there in the sunshine, racking up energy that once went uselessly to heating asphalt. They have prototypes of these hexagonal panels, glazed with an extremely strong tempered glass that they claim can withstand stresses far in excess of anything American traffic can throw at them. The panels, they say, can hold up under the traffic of a column of Army tanks. It is rough-textured glass, too, so no slipping and sliding. More on that momentarily.
The concept is nicely described in a now famous seven-minute video. Though lighthearted and overtly enthusiastic, the video “Solar Freakin’ Roadways” tells the story of this phenomenon in a concise way, and should be seen by anyone who has any interest in solar energy at all. Solar Roadways is a phenomenon of internet crowdfunding if nothing else. It recently raised $2,200,811 on Indie-GoGo.
With that success came detractors and naysayers, and the company released this extensive FAQ to answer the objections.
The Solar Roadways concept is nothing if not ambitious. They propose to eliminate icing and snow plowing on northern roads with a heating element built into the panels. LED lights in the panels could be programmed to show lane dividers and warnings to drivers of wrecks up ahead. The panels are outfitted with micro-processors and are wirelessly decentralized and individually computer controlled. The cost is not yet pinned down, they say, as they have only been working with prototypes. They will be doing real world testing in the coming year, which should give a better idea of price, and feasibility.
Some of the objections to Solar Roadways are those levelled at solar power in general. But these we can dismiss, because solar has been in use for decades now. The objections that will stand until disproved on real world roadways are as follows:
1. Not cost effective. The price of all the materials and labor required to build and install so many complex panels will not be offset by the energy generated. In no way could there ever be a profit.
2. Loss of traction over time. No matter how tempered or strong the glass may be, and no matter how much texture you give it, over time it will wear down a bit, and become as slippery as – glass.
3. Loss of durability over time. Solar Roadways states a lifespan of 20 years per panel. How these complex panels would hold up under real traffic and weather conditions is unknown.
Much criticism has been raised about the LEDs. In fact, if you totaled up the word count of all the anti-Solar Roadways articles and comments, LED criticisms might overtake everything else. They are said to be invisible by day, consume too much energy, and be too complicated for miles of roadway. The latter two arguments are raised against the ice-melting feature, too.
LEDs are the least important part of the Solar Roadways idea. If all the rest of it worked we could happily get by with regular painted lane dividers.
With an idea like this, the proof is in the doing. Bear in mind that Solar Roadways is still in the early stages. They have only been working with early prototypes. They plan to have a more extensive test of the idea next year in their hometown of Sandpoint, Idaho. The town is on board for some solar sidewalks, parking lots, and then roads. They have letters of interest from the Amtrak station in Sandpoint, Idaho, the Sandpoint Airport, the Idaho Transportation Department, and Boise State University, Idaho, among many others. After these real world tests are complete the company figures to have a better accounting of things, including costs.
What is exciting about this concept is how it opens up so much new space for solar energy collection. All we have ever had were panels on rooftops and some arrays out in a field somewhere. The acreage thrown open by this idea would be almost endless. But the objections about long term durability are real. So I am glad that the company will be starting out with sidewalks and parking lots. Some critics have suggested that may be all we need. Along with rooftops, solarize the sides of the roadways. That is a nearly endless area too, and it won’t have the stresses of the driving surfaces.
It is no great loss if this company has to change its name to Solar Shoulders.