The US has about 47,000 square miles of hard surfaces, a lot of which is roads. Roads are great for moving people around, but boy, are they a pain to maintain in ice, snow, and extreme weather conditions. And other than getting cars moved around, what do they really do? Not as much as they could, argue Julie and Scott Brusaw, the inventors of Solar Roadways.
Solar Roadways are an alternative to asphalt and concrete roads that you can drive on and that also make energy. Using hexagonal modules that connect together, Solar Roadways can produce energy and are, according to their inventors, strong enough to withstand being driven on by thousands of pounds of cars and trucks. In addition, there are all kinds of value-added features that the Brusaws are working on that make this design appealing for many reasons, including their capability of hosting LED lighting- no more painting strips or restriping, just change the lighting!; heating for cold climates- no more scraping ice and snow, Solar Roadways will melt it!; and additional cool ideas such as sensors that can be built in to detect wildlife crossing the road and generate warnings in advance to motorists. Also really exciting is the idea of making Solar Roadways that could recharge the electric vehicles that drive on them- eliminating range limitations. The potential of this technology is pretty astounding. Meanwhile, what’s your paved road doing? Sitting there, baking in the sun, freezing in the cold. So unimpressive.
OK so if this sounds all to good to be true, there’s little doubt that it is a bit pie in the sky at this point, and there are some significant challenges to be overcome. For one, even though solar technology is coming down quickly in price, this system still costs a heck of a lot more up front than does pouring asphalt. Its not just the panels themselves- these things come with, as you can imagine, a whole wiring system and infrastructure that is not exactly a cheap or easy investment- like 50% to 300% more than your standard road costs. So convincing cast-strapped municipalities to start replacing their roads with Solar Roadways might not be an easy sell, even if they understand the long-term benefits of installation. For another, roads get dirty. Really dirty. Figuring out how to keep these things clean enough to retain their productivity is likely to be a significant challenge, though the inventors stress they are working on solutions to this issue, including the possibility of adding coatings that reduce the ability for dirt to stick to the panels. And although the inventors are pretty confident that these panels are tested to withstand the forces that driving will place on them, we simply don’t know at this point how well a Solar Roadway’s components might wear over time, particularly in harsh conditions.
All that being said, there is incredible potential in this technology. Even if we weren’t all going to run out and replace our roads with solar roadways, targeted application of this technology in the right climate and the right places- such as parking lots that can serve to both harvest energy and recharge cars- could reap serious benefits. Clearly, many folks beside myself see the potential in this technology, as the inventors have raised nearly $2 million in their Indiegogo funding campaign to date. Their campaign runs through June 20, so check them out- and even if you don’t end up investing, its worth visiting the campaign just to watch the freaking fantastic video they made there! Come on over to the sunny side of the street- this is an idea worth moving forward.