I wrote in a previous post about plans in a Dutch town to install bicycle paths made of solar panels. An entrepreneur in Idaho has a much more grandiose notion: to turn the entire U.S. road network — as well driveways, parking lots, bike paths, sidewalks and playgrounds — into a gigantic electricity grid by replacing asphalt and concrete surfaces with solar panels.
“There’s 25,000 square miles of roadways with parking lots and driveways in the lower 48 states,” says Scott Brusaw. “If we covered that with solar panels with just a 15-percent efficiency, we’d produce three times more electricity than this country uses on an annual basis. And that’s almost enough to power the entire world.
“Roads are collecting heat anyway,” says Brusaw, 53, an electrical engineer with 20 years’ experience in industry. “This thing collects the power, and stores it. Your whole road is an electric grid that delivers the power right to your front door along with cable TV, high-speed Internet access, your telephone. Everything, right there.”
Brusaw, co-founder with his wife, Julie, and CEO of a startup company called Solar Roadways in tiny Sagle, Idaho, says the technolgy behind his idea “has already been done to death” and that he’s “just taking a lot of different technologies and making something new out of it.”
But he adds: “The one thing that hasn’t been done is driving on glass.”
The glass that would encase the solar cells and electronic componentry in a Solar Roadway, he says, would have to “have the same traction as asphalt” and be “strong enough to support a fully loaded semi truck” traveling at 80 mph. It has to be shatter-proof and fireproof, he says, and “transparent enough to allow the sunlight through but not to allow the glare back into the driver’s eyes.”
The U.S. Department of Transportation has awarded Brusaw’s company a $100,000 small business grant to create a prototype solar road panel, 12 feet by 12 feet. Brusaw has teamed up with top glass researchers at the University of Dayton, in Dayton, Ohio, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, and Penn State to develop a kind of glass to meet all his specs.
The magazine US Infrastructure, which covers “the latest developments in American infrastructure and construction management,” wondered on its website whether transforming this country’s more than 5.7 million miles of paved highway into a national energy grid might be “a fantastic, but futile, idea.”
“So why hasn’t the President ordered every man, woman and child to get a pick axe and begin stripping the asphalt off the highways to get this carbon-cutting, energy-producing, super-highway underway?” asked Timon Singh in Sept. 24 story.
“Well, firstly, solar panels are notoriously fragile. Can they really take 40-ton vehicles going 80 miles an hour over them day and night for decades? Also, what happens at night? Will they store enough energy to power themselves during the winter months?”
And then there’s the price tag, Singh wrote — $35 trillion. Each panel is currently predicted to cost around $7,000, Singh said.
“So there we go,” he wrote. “It’s a fantastic idea and one that could change America’s energy and transport infrastructure forever, but currently it’s a pipe dream. An ambitious and undeniably genius pipe dream.”
Brusaw points out that the price of asphalt goes up with the price of crude oil, which itself is a finite resource, unlike the sun. And consider the savings in the cost of energy once Solar Roadways were installed across the nation, he says.
“We can’t keep building asphalt roads, doing the same thing we’ve been doing since Eisenhower opened the federal highway system in the 1950s. It’s an antiquated system we’ve been using far too long. It’s time to move on. We can make better roads. We can make intelligent, electric roads which enable all-electric vehicles.”
The biggest obstacle to his project?: “Change. It scares people, I think.”
For the time being his plans are relatively modest.
“The Federal Highway Administration told us they’re not going to let us go out on the highway to start this,” Brusaw told the CNN website CNN Tech. “They told us to go into the parking lot first, prove your technology, perfect it and learn your lessons there — which makes sense.”