If all the existing roads in the United States were converted to solar roads, they would produce three times as much energy as the country currently uses. That is one of the staggering pieces of information you can find in a high-energy YouTube video about Solar Roadways, which is run by Scott and Julie Brusaw in Idaho.
The idea originally came from Julie in 2006 when they were talking about solar panels, which normally have been placed on roofs. Why not put the panels on the ground, she asked. And while it sounded like a totally out of the box idea, they began blue sky thinking about it.
What about snow and ice? Put in heating elements. What about highway lines? Use LED lights and that makes signaling dynamic. What about overhead power and telephone lines? Put them in a cable corridor. (Like I said, check out that video – really, the possibilities are mind-bending.)
They call it ‘intelligent infrastructure”. And it’s not just roads.
Walmart, for example, has huge parking lots. If it was covered with solar panels, it would produce ten times the amount of power a store uses in a year. Not to mention that the parking lot can be simply restructured on a daily – even hourly – basis to meet customer and store needs. And forget having to repaint lines or clear snow in winter.
Or school playgrounds. If they are covered in intelligent solar panels, there is no need for a separate basketball court or volleyball court. It can be created with the LED lights that are part of the panels.
I can’t decide whether I am more fascinated by the possibilities that Solar Roadways offers, or by the fact that these groundbreaking ideas have come from a couple who live far off the highway in remote rural Idaho, not in one of the places we more readily think of as centres of technological innovation.
They have been working on their idea since 2009, when they got a six-month Small Business Innovative Research contract from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Then in 2014, having learned about crowdfunding, they raised $2 million on IndieGoGo – and greatly expanded the number of people who know about their work.
But because they are doing something completely new, a great deal of their work has been in research and prototyping. So it’s not easy to answer big picture questions like ‘what would it cost’. Part of what they are doing is collecting data on their installations, so people can see for themselves. One of the findings is that laying a solar panel flat on the ground attracts solar energy even on overcast days, for example.
The impact of their ideas is so revolutionary that to make a fair cost comparison, you need to totally rethink your context. There was a discussion along these lines on a recent episode of The Parking Podcast.
Asphalt, for example, needs to be replaced about once a decade, and in between, it needs to be repatched, and is often dug up to install services or fix sewer and water lines. While it may be an investment in public transportation, it is essentially an investment on which there is no return other than the ability of motorists and vehicles to travel. Solar roads, on the other hand, offer an active return on investment through the savings it makes possible, and that return will keep increasing as new possibilities arise. If power lines are in cable boxes that are part of the solar roadway, for example, they are protected from wind, storm and fire damage. The idea of being able to install ‘dynamic charging’ in solar roads would let electric vehicles recharge as they are being driven – a service for which states could charge motorists.
So comparing the cost of solar roads vs asphalt roads is like comparing apples to oranges rather than to other apples. Not very useful.
What is really clear is that when people learn about their ideas, and see them in action, they become fans.
Their idea has brought attention from around the world. And even though they live in a remote part of Idaho, 10 miles off the highway, they got used to people showing up at their home – even sometimes in the middle of the night – which is why they now have a gate to their driveway. Now they have a building in Sandpoint, so people don’t have to come to their home, and their first installation is a plaza not far from that building.
They have a ‘grand vision’ because they see the dramatic possibilities for the US economy, and even the global economy, they said in a fascinating Go Time Interview back in 2016.
One example – electric vehicles. Countries are increasingly encouraging people to drive EVs and auto manufacturers are switching from making traditional vehicles to making EVs, but they need charging stations. One possibility is to install them widely all over the country, which is expensive. But there is another possibility – wireless charging on a solar roadway, so vehicles could be recharged as they’re driven. (They are using wireless charging in Wenatchee, Washington, and in Oslo, Norway, for example.)
“This year, we began talks with a consortium in Utah who are working on the technology for dynamic charging of EVs (charging while they drive),” they said in a 2019 blog post. “They tell us that if just interstates alone which account for 2% of roads offered this service, it would take care of 98% of the miles EVs travel.” While it would be difficult to integrate this technology into standard roads, induction plates could be installed easily in a Solar Roadway.
Already, installing solar panels in driveways and parking lots allows static charging. “But we want to do more. We envision a world where we all just hop into our EVs and take a road trip without worrying about charging – and without worrying about where the energy comes from.”
Solar Roadways website.
Cover image: Chantilly Lace on Solar Roadways prototype parking lot. Wikimedia Commons.
Two EV-Charging Roads Are Coming to Detroit. Ecowatch, Nov. 18, 2022