Solar Panel Roadways: Lighting the Future Ahead?

I haven’t had an electricity bill in nearly two years.  Each month our household is more or less net neutral…on a good month we are actually net contributors to the national grid. This is possible because I live in sunny SoCal and I have solar power. Two years after being proposed as an alternative power for many homes and businesses, US electrical engineer Scott Brusaw’s system of solar powered roads is in the second prototype stage, which could lead to wide spread use. Scott’s idea is to cover highways and other roadways with photo-voltaic panels that would collect energy and feed it into a decentralized power grid. If successful, these panels could generate enough energy to power the entire country. It’s an interesting perhaps genius idea with several barriers to entry.  Solar is pretty big here in SoCal, I inherited mine with the house so I didn’t have to put up the capital directly. If I had it would likely have cost enough that I’d be looking at a twenty year payback. Photo voltaic is expensive to manufacture….scaling the current technology up in such a grand way is a very impressive idea.

As a kid in the 1960s, before most people had even heard of solar power, Scott Brusaw imagined “electric roads.” Almost five decades and two government-funded prototypes later, the electrical engineer from Ohio is on his way to raising $1 million to start producing solar panels for our streets and highways. Not to power the light, mind you—to function as streets and highways. Soon you may be driving on solar panels that power the buildings you’re passing by. One million bucks isn’t going to get anyone much past a Ted Talk…let alone re-engineer our infrastructure.  It’s barely enough to buy the horse to tilt at windmills with…even if the windmills were actually generating wind energy at the time.

“We can use these panels to create roads, parking lots, tarmacs—anything under the sun,” Brusaw says. “All of the current asphalt and concrete currently soaking up the sun can be covered with our technology to turn that sunlight into clean, renewable electricity.”

The biggest challenge Brusaw faced was engineering a case to protect the fragile solar cells. He began by researching the technology used in black boxes for airplanes and ended up using thick hardened glass. It sounds fragile, but after impact resistance and traction testing, it has proved able to handle trucks weighing several times the legal limit. A prototype solar parking lot in Sandpoint, Idaho, has been successful as well.

It may take some time to see them on highways, though. Neil Fromer, executive director of the Resnick Sustainability Institute at the California Institute of Technology, says installing solar power on large structures will take a lot of testing and paperwork.

“The tremendous amount of solar energy that hits the earth’s surface in an hour is enough to power the planet for a year,” Fromer explains. “So when you think about renewable energy in the long term, solar is a huge part of that.” Considering that pavement covers as much as half of many U.S. cities, a lot of electricity could be generated by covering it all with solar panels.

Brusaw’s project could have a huge impact, especially if it overcomes the many challenges to getting it out into the real world.

“I think this is pretty cool, and I don’t want to sound too pessimistic about it,” Fromer says. “It’s really just a question of integrating solar energy into our existing electrical system. Roads are great surfaces to try it…. Technology innovation always helps.”

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