In What Ways Will Solar Roadways Impact Energy Production?
Solar energy roadways look as if they stepped out of a science fiction movie. Rather than use asphalt, smart roadways employ specially designed tempered glass modular solar energy panels that fit together like very large 110 lb. bathroom tiles and can be walked, ridden and driven upon. Panels hold light-emitting diodes that can be used to display lane lines or signs without using paint. They contain heating elements that can melt snow or ice. Panels have microprocessors that have the potential of interacting with self-driving cars. It will be possible to incorporate wireless recharging methods for electric vehicles with these solar roadways.
According to Solar Roadway’s projections, if the United States were to replace all of our nation’s asphalt and concrete thoroughfares and parking lots with these panels, 28,000 square miles worth, we could generate three times more green energy than we consume. If we were to adopt this technology on a widespread scale, solar energy roadways would have a profound impact on green energy production, eliminating the need for burning fossil fuel and its release of carbon in the atmosphere – the major cause of global warming.
The concept behind solar roadways was developed by Idaho residents Julie and Scott Brusaw, who founded the company, Solar Roadways® in 2006. In 2009 the U.S. Department of Transportation gave Solar Roadways a $100,000 Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase 1 grant, which led to the construction of a crosswalk prototype built with touch sensors that were able to determine when pedestrians stepped into the street, signaling drivers to stop. This technology could be used to slow the slaughter of wildlife running on freeways, like the recent January and December mountain lion deaths along the Santa Monica Mountains Recreation Area. Brilliant!
In 2011, the USDOT awarded Solar Roadways a 2-year Phase II SBIR contract for $750,000 to improve the panels, which led to the creation of the first solar surfaced parking lot. In 2013, Google designated Solar Roadways one of its “Moonshots.” In 2014, the company took to Indiegogo to raise a crowdfunding target of $1 million. It exceeded all expectations, raising $2.2 million dollars from more contributors than on any other project to date. A major attraction was that participants saw themselves contributing to a green energy future.
The question remains, however, will solar roadways impact energy production, or is this just a pipe dream? There are major issues with the concept. The first is the material used – glass. Will it be strong and durable enough to withstand the constant grinding by sand, dirt and gravel from truck and automobile tires? Solar Roadways does claim that the double-layered laminated glass it is using in its panels can withstand the weight of a 250,000-lb. vehicle. There’s a tradeoff between making a glass surface transparent enough to conduct light, with a high enough friction factor to prevent skidding at the first hint of moisture. Here again, the company claims that it has solved the problem with a texture that grips so well that a car traveling at 80 m.p.h. can slam on the brakes without skidding. Residential solar energy panels can see drops in energy output as high as 20 percent in areas that don’t get a lot of rain. You can imagine how much dirtier those streets get. Would we have to wash the streets weekly just to maintain green energy generating capability?
Finally, there’s the large cost involved. So far, the panels in the prototypes have all been made by hand. According to Brad Plumer at Vox, based on Scott Brusaw’s 2010 estimate of $10,000 for a 12×12-foot surface, replacing all the streets and roads in the United States with Solar Roadways panels would cost about $56 trillion. To put this number in perspective, the entire U.S. Gross Domestic Product for 2015 was about $18 trillion.
Will solar roadways impact energy production? The short answer is, not any time soon. To begin with, costs have to come way down. The best we can hope for at this point is a pilot project for a municipality that further works on proof of concept. Perhaps in years to come, the Brusaws will be seen as visionaries, but at the moment, solar roadways have a long way to go to have a significant impact on green energy production.
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