About an hour south of the Canadian border, in Sandpoint, Idaho, a visionary couple came up with a ridiculous plan. They decided we should replace all the asphalt roadways with solar panels, which would drastically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and generate clean, renewable energy.
Turns out, this project is actually far more practical than it sounds.
Scott and Julie Brusaw developed Solar Roadways, a modular pavement system that uses solar panels with 18.5% efficiency that can withstand 250,000 pounds, last 20 years, melt snow and ice on contact, and hold built-in LED lights to warn drivers of oncoming debris or traffic. Though they've talked about it for eight years, the pair decided to launch the project on Indiegogo to "see what happened," and they have been blown away by what did.
Solar Roadways' Indiegogo campaign is currently at more than $1.9 million, with 15 days to go. Part of the reason for all of the attention was that its YouTube video "Solar Freakin' Roadways" went viral. It has well over 13 million views by now, complete with a guy who excitedly yells about the impact this project could have.
"It's spread a lot of awareness about Indiegogo to a whole new group of people," said Alexis Blais, who manages PR for Indiegogo. "Solar Freakin' Roadways went viral in a way we've never seen before. To have contributions from every state [in the US] and all over the world, that doesn't happen every week -- really interesting to watch."
Those contributions set an Indiegogo record: more than 35,000 people from 42 different countries (and counting) have funded this campaign.
"I think [this campaign] says loud and clear that the world is ready for solar roadways," Scott Brusaw said.
How solar roadways work
The Brusaws have known each other since they were three and four years old. Scott remembers being obsessed with his slot car track toy as a child, which ran tiny electric cars on an electric road. The idea to actually implement that in real life stuck with him throughout his life -- he still has drawings of electric grids and roads from middle school.
A short while after Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth came out and global warming started to become a hot button issue, Scott and Julie were gardening together one day when she said to him, "Remember that electric road you've talked about your whole life? Can you make that with solar panels?"
He laughed, but the seed was planted. If he could make a case to surround the panels, it could possibly be done. Scott decided to take a year off to see if anyone was really interested in the idea of solar roadways.
"And I've never gone back. We weren't getting paid for this," he said. "We've had some lean years but that carrot was always dangling right in front of us, which kept us going."
In 2009, Solar Roadways received two phases of funding from the US Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration for development of a paving system that will pay for itself and to create a prototype parking lot, which they have finished.
The parking lot has 108 solar panels of two variations, which the team is inspecting to see which works more efficiently. "It's done and working the way we want, of course there are some blips here and there, but that's expected," Brusaw said.
The solar panels can withstand 250,000 pounds of weight, which is four times the legal weight of a semi truck, Brusaw said, and have traction to stop a vehicle moving up to 80 miles per hour. They won't break or crack if something crashes on them. The panels, which are the same as any typical solar roof panels, are encased in a version of bullet-resistant glass that was tested for many months at the top materials research institutes at Penn State and University of Dayton. The base layers are made of 10% recycled glass.
In Idaho, the tests were done in the dead of winter, when the sun barely cleared the trees. Brusaw guesses the panels in the prototype are under four hours of direct sunlight a day, which means 1460 hours a year. Of course, closer to the equator, there is more direct sunlight, which means more power. But, the roads will generate plenty of energy anywhere.
The amount of research Brusaw and his team have done is impressive. This isn't just an idealistic vision for the future. With the Indiegogo funds, he plans to hire a team of engineers (he's already looking at resumes) and open an office in Sandpoint. Don't expect the Solar Roadways team to travel to Silicon Valley for VC funding or open an office there, either. Brusaw said he's staying put.
The city of Sandpoint wants to retrofit the welcome center parking lot with these solar panels, as well as a 25-acre airport, Amtrak train station, sidewalks, and other lots.
"We've had people all over the world tell us 'If you ever open your parking lot to the public let us know because we will fly there just to say we got to walk on it,'" he said. "It's going to be big for the city."
With funding in place for the new team, Brusaw plans to make final tweaks to the parking lot prototype and have it ready for manufacturing by the end of the year, installing some real versions of the roadways by the end of the spring in 2015.
The roads will also have heating elements to melt snow and ice. It's marketed as a safer alternative to roads. No potholes, no paint, no repairs.
Solar roadways are also smart roads with electronic LED displays built-in. Warning signs with LED text to warn people about downed limbs, animals, and construction can be displayed directly on the road ahead. And they can also help with power lines and poles. A cable corridor runs underneath, housing power lines, cable lines, and fiber optics, replacing the need for telephone poles. It also serves as a transportation system for stormwater, running it to treatment facilities.
As the technology becomes more advanced, solar panels have gone down in price and increased in efficiency. In 2012 fossil fuels generated about 68% of US electricity, according to the Energy Information Administration. Solar was 0.11% of energy generation, and only 5% overall was renewable energy. If the roadways, which already absorb and reflect exorbitant amounts of sunlight, are replaced with solar panels, this reduction in greenhouse gases would have a significant impact.
"With over 20,000 square miles of paved surfaces in the US alone, we crunched numbers [and there would be] three times more electricity than the nation uses [if they all switched to Solar Roadways]," Brusaw said.
That doesn't even count sidewalks, basketball courts, bike lanes, and parking lots.
The long-term idea is to replace the power grid with a "smart grid." Part of this plan is to improve the charging ecosystem for electric vehicles. Currently there are not many charging stations for the vehicles, and roadways that could charge anywhere offers a solution to that issue, and it has the potential to drive the technology into the mainstream. An electric road could help build the infrastructure for transporting the power that electric vehicles will need, Brusaw added.
"This will help the planet. It doesn't just help the environment, it helps the economy. There's something that everybody likes about it," Brusaw said.
He wants to scale manufacturing across the world -- and already has had offers to do so -- but he wants to keep the process local to each country to improve jobs and have an impact on the global economy.
"It helps everybody's economy, gets the product out, helps the environment, and doesn't just send all the jobs to sweatshops in the Pacific Rim," he said. "This could create millions of jobs."
The main hurdles in implementing this massive infrastructure project mostly lie in who owns the roads. Some are federally owned, others state, township, or individually. The first step is the non-critical applications: sidewalks, driveways, parking lots, and then residential streets with slow-moving traffic.
Although the project has been amazingly successful on Indiegogo, Solar Roadways has plenty of critics. Many people have pointed out the problem with costs, durability, and scalability. Brusaw knows it will take years, but this project isn't based on unproven technology. Tempered glass and solar panels have been around for years. It's the economics that will be challenging.
The Solar Roadways team said they will have a better idea of the overall production cost when their Federal Highway Administration contract ends in July. However, Brusaw said the road pays for itself because of the energy savings it generates, how long the panels last, and the lack of maintenance the panels require compared to traditional roads.
By the end of the crowdfunding campaign, which was extended until June 20, Brusaw will be ready to move forward with Solar Roadways. His goal is to have a finished product by end of year, then use the rest of the money to hire more more people and start building the machinery to make the panels.
It's a long road ahead -- pun intended -- but Brusaw and team have clearly struck a chord and made it easy for a lot of people to buy into the solar-powered smart roads of the future.
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Lyndsey Gilpin has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Lyndsey Gilpin is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She writes about the people behind some of tech's most creative innovations and in-depth features on innovation and sustainability.