Scientific Innovation: Solar Roadways

If this solar project works as advertised, it could revolutionize energy production and transportation. So naturally the carbon “Kochtopus” and their henchmen, SRP and APS, will do everything in their power to kill it in the crib. Think Progress reports This Couple Is Making Roads Out Of Solar Panels, And They Actually Work:

Finding a way to replace regular, concrete roads with ones that could better serve a sustainable world has long been Scott and Julie Brusaw’s dream.

SolarRoadArtistsRendition-638x423Artist’s rendition of a Solar Roadway in downtown Sandpoint, Idaho.

The e-mails are about the couple’s Solar Roadways project, which aims to replace traditional asphalt and concrete roadways with solar panels that are covered with four-square-foot glass hexagon panels. The glass panels are designed not only to withstand the heaviest of trucks, but are also textured, encouraging tires to grip the surface and water to run off. The solar panels underneath generate energy from the sun, which can not only power nearby communities, but also the electric vehicles that drive above them. The power could also fuel embedded heating elements that would melt ice and snow, essentially making plows obsolete. To top it off, the power also lights up yellow LED lights instead of painted-on road lines, making night time driving safer.

It’s a seemingly crazy idea, but according to the couple, it’s actually working. Boosted by two phases of funding they’ve received from the U.S. Federal Highway Administration, they’ve built a parking lot that they say can withstand weight, generate electricity, and ultimately help fight climate change.

“It’s so exciting to have the parking lot now, to see and touch and walk on,” Julie said. “Finally, we’ve gone from concept to a tangible prototype.”

If every roadway in the country were replaced with Solar Roadways — a huge feat, admittedly — Julie and Scott estimate that enough solar energy could be generated to entirely substitute power generated from fossil fuels, and then some. Combined with the fact that the roads could charge electric vehicles (and thereby increase the viability of those vehicles) the couple estimates that the roads would, if installed everywhere, have the ability to cut American greenhouse gas production by 75 percent.

The couple also contends that the roadways would pay for themselves over time because of the fact that they generate power.

The Solar Roadways project has been in the works for quite some time, with Scott and Julie initially receiving a contract from the Federal Highway Administration in 2009. The results of that contract were favorable enough that they were awarded a follow-up contract in 2011 worth $750,000 to build the prototype parking lot in Idaho.

Now that the prototype is nearly finished (it still needs some mastic filling between the panels, and software for LED patterns), the couple’s hometown city of Sandpoint, Idaho is looking to be its first customer. If that happens, it would be the first solar-powered parking lot in the world. A far cry from an actual road, but a step, Julie said.

“We want to install a sufficient number of parking lots, sidewalks, driveways etc., that we feel ready before moving on to roads,” she said. “However, we have potential customers waiting from all over the country and all over the world, so we are hoping to move very quickly.If we meet our goal on Indiegogo, that will enable us to hire our initial team, and gear up for production.”

The couple has launched a $1 million Indiegogo campaign to raise money for the project. They’ve so far raised a little more than $143,000.

The Washington Post picked up the story on Tuesday. Forget roofs, are solar roads the next big thing?:

[W]hile the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that installing solar panels on every home in America would produce 3.75 trillion kilowatt hours of electricity a year, nearly on par with all the energy the United States generated in 2011, such a sweeping sea change realistically isn’t going to happen anytime soon — if ever. That’s because the onus rests largely on consumers and businesses to adopt solar, with regulators playing a limited role in crafting policies to incentivize and nudge folks to buy in. And yet despite these efforts, photovoltaics still account for no more than 1.13 percent of America’s power production.

But what else can municipalities do? It’s not like they can pave the streets with solar panels.

That’s where the husband and wife team of Scott and Julie Brusaw would beg to differ. Since the mid-2000′s, Scott, an electrical engineer, and Julie, a psychotherapist, have been developing special solar cells encased in rugged, hexagonal-shaped glass. Lay enough of these mechanical cobblestones together and you’ve built yourself a kind of hybrid driveway-slash-solar array. There’s even a section of a parking lot — located outside their engineering lab in Sagle, Idaho — that’s claimed to produce an output equivalent to a 3600-watt solar array.

For the Brusaws, the prototype, while impressive, makes up but a tiny chunk of a much more ambitious vision. According to their calculations, covering the nation’s nearly 28,000 square miles worth of roads, highways and parking spaces with these special panels would produce three times the nation’s total energy consumption. Under this scenario, the panels would serve as the foundation for a do-it-all “smart” roadway system that’s capable of not only harvesting energy, but also making roads safer by using heat to remove surface ice and lighting up dark pathways with embedded LEDs.

“One of the biggest benefits is that the new system can serve as a hub for all green energy technologies because it’s not vulnerable to disruption the way the centralized grids are,” Julie Brusaw explains. “It’s a perfect way to create an energy-producing ‘Smart Grid’ while also modernizing our antiquated highway system at the same time.”

The “Solar Roadway” project, which the Brusaws proposed, was promising enough that, in 2009, the U.S. Federal Highway Administration awarded them a series of contracts to further their concept. With the initial investments, they assembled a team to help create a clear, impact-resistant casing, similar to bulletproof glass, and strong enough to support up to 250,000 pounds. To test the glass’s strength, a tractor was even driven over the panels. Housed inside the road traction-molded shell are self-powered heaters to prevent icing during freezing winter months and tiny LED bulbs that can be networked to relay signals that warn drivers of hazardous conditions ahead. They’re also exploring ways to integrate other useful technologies, such as wireless induction recharging for vehicles.

“Even with all these useful features built-in, what’s great is that the surface material is still stronger and more durable than asphalt,” Julie Brusaw points out. “Potholes will be a thing of the past and even if any of the panels need to be repaired, at 110 pounds, they can be easily removed and have another installed in its place without causing any traffic delays.”

A less obvious benefit, as pointed out by Jan Kleissl, an environmental engineering professor at University of California-San Diego, is how carbon footprints can be reduced simply swapping out asphalt altogether. “The problem with asphalt is that it’s a dark surface that absorbs energy in potentially harmful way,” he explains. “Energy is turned into heat and thus increases the temperature of the air, which causes the urban heat island effect where people end up using more air conditioning.”

At this point you may be thinking that it all sounds pretty good, so what’s what’s the holdup? Well, in this case, we’re talking about an undertaking with astronomical costs, as is often the case with anything that involves having to overhaul infrastructure that’s spread across almost an entire continent. Over at Vox, Brad Plumer hashes out some hypothetical figures that make it clear why the project is gaining little traction:

Back in 2010, the company assumed that a 12′ by 12′ glass panel would cost around $10,000. At this rate, covering all of our roads would cost $56 trillion — nearly 20 times the annual federal budget. Even on a smaller scale, these panels are at least 50 percent more expensive than regular roads, and possibly more.

That’s not to mention the additional expense of developing technologies to store and transport the energy over long distances, Plumer argues.

For the time being, there still aren’t many practical ways to store solar-generated electricity for hours when the sun isn’t shining. What’s more, electricity generated on remote roads would have to be transported to where it was needed. That would all require a lot of infrastructure.

There’s also the issue of maintenance costs, though the couple contends the systems would pay for themselves over the course of 22 years.  Moreover, the degree in which flat, ground-level photovoltaics can be beneficial also varies widely depending on the region. “It is a good option for the southern parts of the United States like Arizona,” Kleissl says. “In the North, the sun angle is low, so it’s not as efficient since you’ll want panels to be tilted at 30 or 40 degrees.”

[So the problem with Brad Plumer’s back of the envelope analysis is his all-or-nothing absolutist approach. Clearly the solar road could have practical applications in large urban environments in the Southern regions of the United States. Less so in rural areas. As is always the case, mass production of these solar units would reduce the per unit cost of production, so the estimate of $10,000 per unit is likely overstated.]

But for the Brusaws, they’ll continue to plow forth in hopes of carrying out as much of their grandiose plan as they can. They’ve recently launched a crowd-funding campaign on Indiegogo to raise $1 million, which, if successful, will go toward putting the finishing touches on a final product as well as figuring out a cost-effective method of producing the panels. Initially, residential versions of the system will be available locally to homeowners in Sandpoint, Idaho, where there are currently four customers waiting to have their driveways repaved, they said.

This would be an excellent project for say a university campus, or a large industrial tech park, to further the scientific study of its use and application right outside their front door.

UPDATE: The I Fucking Love Science web site has a post on this as well. Solar Roads Could Power An Entire Country. Here’s a YouTube video from Solar Roadways if you’d like to find out more:

One response to “Scientific Innovation: Solar Roadways

  1. Here’s an infrastructure project to get behind, and good for the solar business too.