Originally published June 9 2014
Ambitious or insane? Nation's roadways can be turned into functioning solar panels, say inventors
by J. D. Heyes
(NaturalNews) An Idaho couple has raised more than $1 million on Indiegogo to pursue the mother of all ambitious goals: Repave the nation's vast roadway system with solar panels.
The couple, Julie and Scott Brusaw, have already started the company -- Solar Roadways, which is appropriate enough -- and the initial design is now ready to move from being a prototype into manufacturing, which can be a dangerous phase for any tech project.
The concept is exciting to many, especially when they consider the potential. But other experts are putting the brakes on the idea, because they say the logistics of actually getting it done are too far out of reach for the time being.
As reported by The Verge:
The Brusaws are not scammers or wackos. Scott has an electrical engineering background and the project has gotten two rounds of funding from the Federal Highway Administration. They've built a prototype parking lot made of solar panels, microprocessors, and LEDs encased in a textured glass that they say can withstand the weight of a 250,000-pound truck.
Theoretically speaking, the idea is sound enough; if you could replace all of the nation's asphalt with solar panels, it would be possible to generate three times the electricity the U.S. currently uses (spoiler alert: that's a lot of power). In addition, the Solar Roadway design would also filter rain and storm water, negate the need for above-ground power cables, prevent icy roads by melting snow and other wintry precipitation, and even light up to warn drivers of hazards ahead (like wild game crossing the road).
That said, the obstacles are many. And the main problem, as is almost always the case with new technology, is cost: It's massive.
"Sure, we could pave the streets with solar panels, but we could also pave them with gold," science writer Aaron Saenz wrote in 2010, when the Brusaws' company was first getting national attention. "There is roughly 29,000 square miles of road surface to cover. We need roughly 5.6 billion panels to cover that area. That's a price tag of $56 trillion!"
Not small change, by any stretch. And no, the current highway-funding system, which generates about $250 billion a year, won't cover that kind of additional cost ever. You couldn't raise taxes enough to cover the cost.
Even when he used the Brusaws' mostly positive calculations -- which Saenz said overestimates the cost of asphalt -- he notes that solar roads would still be something like 50 percent more expensive than traditional roads.
And the Indiegogo campaign really does not address the issue of cost. What's more, The Verge notes, the Brusaws are not clear about what only $1 million is going to purchase. "We need to make a few tweaks to our product and streamline our manufacturing process so that we can make our panels available to the public as quickly as possible," they wrote on the crowd-funding site.
"The Brusaws have been unable to secure any piece of the more-than $2 billion a year spent on solar research and development around the world," Joel Anderson, a business editor for Equities.com, wrote. "Probably because there's too many more-practical, more-promising investments to be made to seriously consider this pipe dream."
That's a good point, say experts. Though rooftop panels and other solar displays have already proven to be good, viable sources of alternative energy, the American public has been slow to adopt them (largely because of cost). And really, it seems goofy to believe that the country would embark on a campaign to rip up thousands of miles of roadway to install an unproven technology, when it could achieve a similar level of power generation by simply placing panels alongside roadways, which is what the Oregon Solar Highway Program's approach is about.
What happens to panels when they wear out?
Other funding opportunities have also not panned out, reports have said. More from The Verge:
Most of the technological challenges seem solvable. Those include things like how to keep the roads clean, how to increase the efficiency of the panels in the road, how to store the solar power, how to get electricity from more remote roads to the grid, and whether the glass is durable enough. Whether they're solvable for a reasonable price tag is another question.
The Brusaws say they already have some customers lined up when their product is finished, but they would not say who those customers are, nor disclose the strength of their commitment. And they also talked of the possibility of other revenue sources besides selling electricity, like advertising on the roads' LED display, or charging drivers to refuel electric cars.
But that sounds less like a business plan and more like a dream.
And here's another thought: What to do with all of the panels once they wear out in about 20 years or so? Fill up more landfills with them?
Still, check out the marketing video here.
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