A Roadway Revolution

By Elena Routledge

 

About 5 million kilometers of paved road currently exists in Canada and the United States alone. This length is equivalent to driving along the Earth’s equatorial belt over 120 times — road trip anyone?

According to a study done by the American Geophysical Union in 2004 there is over 75,012 square kilometers of pavement (including parking lots and driveways) in the United States alone. Now, imagine if this area was covered by solar panels instead of pavement. Imagine the power.

An American company, Solar Roadways Inc, is trying to make this radical idea become a reality. They have created “Solar Road Panels” which can withstand the weight of cars, and can essentially be built right into the ground. The company has determined that America’s paved roads alone could potentially produce over 13,961 billion kilowatt-hours per year if roads were replaced by solar panels. To put this number into perspective, that is three times the amount of electrical power expended in the United States annually. Solar Roadways Inc. is a project born from the necessity to find a solution to Earth’s rapidly changing
climate  — what the company terms as the Global Warming Crisis. Their ultimate vision is to cover all sun-exposed paved surfaces in America with “Solar Road Panels” in hopes to eliminate our dependency on gasoline and diesel to fuel our vehicles. It is a big idea that is surrounded by a myriad of skepticism, but it’s making headlines.

 

Scott Brusaw, the founder of Solar Roadways, is an electrical engineer from Idaho who has spent the past five years working on the concept of “intelligent pavement”. Solar Roadways would generate electricity, act as a power grid and even melt snow and ice.

The intelligent pavement would be laid down by linking square, 12-foot panels. Each of these panels is composed of three basic layers: the strong, translucent road surface layer, the electronic layer and the base-plate layer. The top layer of a panel is a high-strength, waterproof, textured glass that provides traction for vehicles (it has about the same traction as asphalt), and yet it still allows sunlight to pass through and reach the PV cells. Just beneath this highly textured glass lies the PV cells, LED lights and heating elements. The LED lights allow warning messages and road lines to be displayed on the road for increased night visibility. The heating element can safely melt snow and ice off the road during the winter.

The electronics layer contains a microprocessor board with support circuitry for sensing loads on the surface and controlling the heating element, lighting and communications. This electronics layer is what makes Solar Roadways such an intelligent highway system — it is almost as though the road is rippling with life beneath your car’s tires as you drive.

Finally, the bottom, waterproof base-plate layer distributes the solar power collected by the PV cells. The power and data signals provided by the Solar Roadways can then be connected and delivered to any home or business, simply through parking lots and driveways.

The benefits of such a system are absolutely indisputable. First and foremost, solar energy is “clean” energy: it produces no carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, or any other air pollutants. This starkly contrasts to other electricity produced by burning
fossil fuels.

Another major benefit of using  roadways to implement solar photovoltaic (PV) technology is that undeveloped land need not be touched — one of the common arguments against solar power is that it takes up a lot of room, but using roadways eliminates this issue.

Brusaw imagines a future when the solar energy collected off the road  would allow all-electric vehicles to recharge essentially anywhere, making these vehicles much more economically viable. The company has already been successful in completing the first phase of their Small Business Innovative Research contract. This contract, awarded to them by the Federal Highway Administration of the United States, was based upon the condition that they develop a fully-functioning prototype of their solar roadway concept in a parking lot. Parking lots are good test sites for the solar panels because the vehicle traffic is lightweight and slow-moving, and the parking lot can be easily monitored 24/7.

Brusaw also envisions the solar panels in driveways, patios, playgrounds and residential streets. Since their success in building this parking lot prototype, Solar Roadways has been awarded a follow-up $750,000 for phase two of their contract. Furthermore, Solar Roadways Inc. hopes to have a working prototype installed in the parking lot of a McDonald’s in the
near future.

 

Besides its fundamental benefit as an environmentally attractive system, Solar Roadways boasts significant economic benefits. For one, Solar Roadways essentially “pay for themselves” in the long-run because they would provide vast amounts of electricity to homes and businesses across the nation. The power collected by the PV panels would also allow all-electric vehicles to recharge essentially anywhere, making these vehicles much more economically viable. Of course, these high-tech solar panels do come with a hefty price tag of roughly $10,000 per panel, and each panel would have to be maintained and replaced every 20 years. If all of America’s highways were to be replaced with Solar Roadways in one go, it would cost a whopping 56 trillion dollars. To gain a fuller perspective in regards to the fiscal feasibility of Solar Roadways, Nerve sought out the views of a Queen’s Commerce student who is also the previous Finance Manager of Queen’s Solar Design Team (QSDT), Ahrun Thiyagarajah.

(Elena Routledge): Having had experience managing grant money for QSDT, what challenges are faced in using this money to take a “green” idea like this to the prototype stage, and then to the product stage?

(Ahrun Thiyagarajah): In the case of the solar roadways, the work that is being done by Mr. Brusaw is directly aimed at proving its commercial application right now, so their challenges are very unique to their circumstances. Specifically, I think you will find that the direct involvement and funding by the U.S. Government puts much more pressure on them to demonstrate that the roadways are a viable option that can be implemented in the near future. […] They are moving more towards the product stage, and focussing much more on demonstrating that it can be financially feasible – that costs can be cut down to a level where full implementation of these roads are possible, while still achieving the efficiencies that are sought. This can be a difficult task.

(Routledge): In the words of Scott Brusaw, “[You] need to start off small: driveways, bike paths, patios, sidewalks, parking lots, playgrounds. This is where [we] learn our lessons and perfect our system. Once the lessons have been learned and the bugs have all been resolved, [we’ll] plan to move out onto public roads.” Why would you say is it so fundamental to “start small”?

(Thiyagarajah): Starting small is critical, in short, because you have to prove that the technology is feasible before it can be implemented. […] An undertaking of such a project requires a substantial financial investment, and it is something that is very hard and costly to undo (entire roads!). For this reason, you want to make sure that the technology is tested, scalable, and better than any alternative before you go through with the implementation phase.

(Routledge): Do you believe that Solar Roadways is a realistic plan (or will be a realistic plan in the near future) or will it prove to be too difficult and costly to implement?

(Thiyagarajah): In terms of how realistic Solar Roadways is right now, I am not sure that a wide-scale implementation of it will be possible in the near future. This, in large part, is due to the fact that solar roadways will involve immense complexities in terms of dealing with governments, etc., which may prove to be difficult to accomplish across the vast regions of Canada and the United States (the bureaucratic red tape alone is challenging to overcome). However, what I do believe is that if the costs can be brought down, and the technology does prove to be feasible, then we can move towards small-scale implementations of it in different cities and towns. What this will do is provide a concrete example of its implementation and effectiveness, which may encourage further developments of solar roadways across the country as its benefits become more apparent. Again though, this is all dependent on the success of Mr. Brusaw and his team in demonstrating that solar roadways are a feasible alternative, and that they can be engineered at a cost-effective rate.

Thiyagarajah’s skepticism over the realistic nature of Solar Roadways is shared by many people — there are many reasons to question the feasibility of such an endeavour. The complexities of the project are an overwhelming reference to the fact that great engineering feats must be accomplished before the panels can be fully implemented. Essentially, despite the incredible power of the idea (literally), Solar Roadways is a project still significantly deep in the prototype stage.

Queen’s Professor Joshua Pearce focuses much of his research in applied sustainability and solar photovoltaic cells. He said there is a major issue with Solar Roadways in that the cars driving over the road will disrupt the intake of solar energy, which will “kill solar performance.”

“There is no question that fossil fuels as a whole are a zombie energy source – dead but still walking. Solar will push them out with time, but this technology is unlikely to be the one that does it,”
Pearce said.

Perhaps one day we will look upon the development stages of this new technology with a knowing fondness, just as we look upon the time when cars were ridiculed as impractical. There is no denying that this technology has the potential to revolutionize the way we think about transit just as automobiles did. After all, we are often told that things of grand accomplishment are unrealistic.

 

 

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