Start-Ups

How 'Solar Roadways' plans to create smart roads to produce clean energy and save lives and money

A smart grid of solar roads could reduce pollution, improve the economy, and have the potential to produce three times the amount of power the US currently uses.

solar1.jpg
A rendition of a solar interstate.
 Image: Sam Cornett

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.

SEE: Photos: A world with 'Solar Roadways' smart roads

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?"

solar3.jpg
A snow removal test on the solar panels.
 Image: Solar Roadways

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.

Long-term impacts

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."

solar2.jpg
A rendition of downtown Sandpoint, Idaho.
 Image: Sam Cornett

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.

Also see

About

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.

39 comments
bobwinners
bobwinners

Ok, I'm liking this much more than the thought of Google driver=less cars!  I am wondering about funding, though.  Will all such roads become toll roads?

petepratt
petepratt

Where's the power generated by these things stored?

mjwallin
mjwallin

This does not fly due to the law of thermodynamics, which apparently the Brusaws know little about.  Unfortunately, even many engineers do not take courses in thermo if they can avoid it, and many never grasp it's subtleties.  That is why people still submit patent applications for what amounts to perpetual motion machines.  Sorry, but anyone investing in this particular idea is not going to make any money.

digital riverrat
digital riverrat

The initial portion of the project, the non-critical and low-speed areas are going to be the only ones this is really feasible for. For the interstate highway system, it's going to be the areas between the two directions of travel, the median, and the extreme sides where it will work. If these are made correctly, they can eliminate the need for the wiring and cabling conduits. I don't see this working for highways and expressways. Abrasion will polish the glass or cause it to get milky if it's where there is constant to almost constant traffic. 


The basic idea behind this is sound. It just needs to be refined and the scope needs to be scaled down a bit.

UXT
UXT

What a load of rubbish! I didn't realise we lived in Wonderland, with Pixies and Fairies and whatever other make-believe rubbish we come up with!

A dose of reality please!

wendygoerl
wendygoerl

I read this and I think about the co-op down the street. Our town is near wetlands and they're bringing in gravel every couple of years--and they're STILL a field of potholes. Not to mention all the holes in the road we dug this winter to get at burst water mains. I can only imagine the headaches this would cause if the New York-Washington axis takes the bit and runs with it, forcing them on everyone without considering how hard it is to keep a road in driveable condition in some places.

Zorched
Zorched

For over a decade I would drive down the dark black freeway watching the solar energy radiate off as heat and thought, "Wouldn't it be great if they could turn that into solar power?"

I always came up with three problems: Cost of installation, cost of maintenance and durability, especially in northern climates where we go from -25 in winter to +100 in the summer.  While the need for snowplows would be lessened, I still see them as being needed, and they would beat the heck out of those things.

Seeing the pictures, I have to add a 4th problem: Road noise.  With thousands of hexagons, one had better have a perfectly smooth interface between them or the road noise on freeways will be insane.  We have a lane marking test area by my house where they are testing different striping materials and that is so noisy it's aggravating. 

If they solved those problems, then great!  I could see the power coming off the roads paying for the installation over time.  The freeways would be easy to assign who get the benefit of the power: the state they reside in.  The city streets are not so clear-cut.  Since I legally own the property under half the city street in front of my house, a case might be made that I should benefit directly from the power produced.  That could get messy in the courts.

luenib
luenib

"The main hurdles in implementing this massive infrastructure project mostly lie in who owns the roads." No, it lies mostly in how much this idea is going to cost (installation and maintenance) compared to how much it costs to maintain the roads we already have.

HavaCigar
HavaCigar

Yes, these people really care about the environment and THEIR OWN carbon footprint:

"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."

Their lack of foresight and knowledge really helps their support of the idea. NOT!

appdeveloper
appdeveloper

I would like to see how a vehicle comes to a stop on a glass road.  Also, what drag coefficient would you impose on a vehicle going 65 mph on a highway.  Is that going to effect gas mileage?  And when solar roads makes a calculation of how much power can be returned to the consumer, doesn't the calculation fluctuate because of cars covering some of the solar panels...such as in grid lock/traffic jams?

jcigala
jcigala

Hi zeeboid & ssb, IMHO I suppose people said the same about Edison, the Wright brothers, and so on...

ssb
ssb

We need a truth advertising for so-called renewable energy.


Thankfully in this case the Digg video demonstrates how totally fallacious this concept really is.


Isn't that supposed to be the job of journalists too?


Oh, I guess not if it is GREEN.

jreavis
jreavis

I plan to get a house soon. I would love to have something like this in the driveway and power the house with it!

jvegerano
jvegerano

I think its a great idea, Its about time we stop draining and poisoning our planet.

bblackmoor
bblackmoor

"Turns out, this project is actually far more practical than it sounds."

Actually, no, it's a lot less practical than it sounds. Aside from the problem distributing that power (hint: it's related to Ohm's law), and aside from the problem that the LEDs will be invisible in the daytime, and aside from the fact that we replaced cobblestones with solid roadways for a reason, and aside from the fact that manufacturing, installing, and maintaining these solar cobblestones would cost orders of magnitude more than putting photovoltaics *next* to or *above* roads or parking lots rather than *under* them, and aside from the safety issues pertaining to driving on glass... aside from all of that, it sounds pretty neat.

cdtplug
cdtplug

The oil companies won't like this at all and will stifle it with their bought for MP's\congressmen.


Poli Tecs
Poli Tecs

"How 'Solar Roadways' plans to create smart roads to produce clean energy and save lives and money"


should say...


"How 'Solar Roadways' plans to destroy wealth to produce useless energy and destroy lives and money"


This has got to be the STUPIDEST idea I have ever heard! As if the useless solar power to date, watching windmills all my life go up and destroy landscapes for ZERO return, this tops the insane.


Liberalism is a mental disorder!

robin.conway
robin.conway

I'll believe it when I see the accounts of electricity generated offset by the economic and carbon costs in creating the first 10 miles of actual roadway, not parking lot.

pdakin
pdakin

You realize, of course, that in all probability, most of those 35,000 people who donated did so because of the possibility of actually living in a "FREAKIN' TRON" world....  YES!   :)  Great video!

NickNielsen
NickNielsen moderator

@luenib 

Since we aren't maintaining the roads we already have, that makes it easy doesn't it...

luenib
luenib

@jcigala


No, they questioned the plausibility of their inventions, not their ROI.

mudpuppy1
mudpuppy1

@ssb  Yeah, all you have to do is slap the word "green" on it and some people (like the author and SmartPlanet) go all gaga over it. It's like a religion with some of them. There may be some merit in some of this but it gets lost in all the raving panting and slobbering that goes on.

PhilM
PhilM

@bblackmoor  I was under the impression that most traffic lights use LEDs nowadays.  They seem to be working fine.

kitekrazy
kitekrazy

@cdtplug I don't think they care.  Politicians came up with unique environMENTAL restrictions that have only increased the oil companies profits.  The real evil is not business but our elected leaders. Besides so many things are made from petroleum that there is probably some petroleum used in these panels.  Solar energy only works in some geographical areas.  Few people don't realize how expensive and inefficient the solar industry is. There's a reason why it looks to our government for help instead of the private industry.

Menopausal
Menopausal

@Poli Tecs I know, right? It really bugs me when people don't realize the earth is flat and was created 6000 years ago, too. Those idiots. /snark

Seriously, mind explaining how you concluded it would "destroy wealth" - if it doesn't work, then how does it destroy the petroleum industry? And if it does work, then how does your viewpoint make any sense?

JimTheEngineer
JimTheEngineer

@jman67 That video is over 28 minutes long. About one to two minutes bring up real problems, about ten minutes are used to repeat those problems ad nauseam, and the rest is over-the-top hype - thorium powered cars, etc. Do the opponents of this concept really need that much time to offer their opinion? I'd like to see good research that does address the problems with the idea, like the stopping force, the wear on the glass, etc.

mudpuppy1
mudpuppy1

@NickNielsen @luenib  I get your point, but that's not entirely true. I drive through construction zones all the time. There is road maintenance being done. Yes, it could be better.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen moderator

@Menopausal 

Liberal ideas, by their very existence, destroy wealth: every time somebody declares something a "liberal idea". a dollar is destroyed.
  /notsnark

kitekrazy
kitekrazy

@JimTheEngineer @jman67 There lies the problem. It will be like global warming where honest research will be shunned,  Common sense seems to say this will not work.

jan
jan

Seriously? Any idea that changes the status quo is, by definition, "liberal". When the liberal idea of gas powered vehicles to replace horse drawn buggies came about, that resulted in the wealthiest companies in the history of the world. Smh.

digital riverrat
digital riverrat

@kitekrazy @JimTheEngineer @jman67 Common sense says these people have tried to reach too far. Thinking this can replace asphalt for highways and high traffic areas is pretty insane. Sidewalks, walkways, driveways, parking lots, sporting areas, and the like are all excellent ideas though.

squirrellysiege
squirrellysiege

@digital riverrat @kitekrazy @JimTheEngineer @jman67 I don't think they have tried to reach too far, they may be a bit overly optimistic; however, the inventors themselves seem to have admitted that they don't know quite where to go with this product.  It has definite potential even if the all-knowing Thunderf00t says it doesn't.  He raised a few valid points that need to be addressed, but to say that it is an idea that should be tossed aside because it will never work without actually giving it a try is just silly.  They can always try it small scale first in a small town and track it over the course of a year or so and see what the long term affects may be as well as potential side effects of replacing asphalt roadways would be as well as maintenance issues, costs, etc...Naturally, this won't give a complete picture, but you have to start somewhere.  Put them in a few parking lots.  Until there are enough in place out in the "real world" anything offered is just speculation.