Idaho-based Solar Roadways founder Scott Brusaw is excited that his company has a received a USD$100,000 U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) grant to develop further his prototype that turns roads in giant electricity-generating solar panels. Apart from providing energy to power our homes, street lighting and so on, the roads could contain thousands of embedded LEDs to provide better street signage and make driving safer. He also believes the solar panel roads could last up to three times longer than the current petroleum-based asphalt surface and even be heated in winter to discourage dangerous ice build ups.
It’s a brave plan but dig deeper and Brusaw’s idea would appear to have a lot of merit. In the video (below) Brusaw says he’s not reinventing solar power collection systems, he’s just deploying them in a practical way. He says that in 2003, the US had more than 25,000 sq miles of roads, parking lots and driveways that, if exchanged for solar panels with only 15% efficiency (about the average panel output currently available), would provide more than three times the power necessary for every home in the U.S., maybe enough for the whole world.
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If you’ve ever stood in the middle of a hot road on a sunny day, you’ll know what Brusaw is talking about when he says our roads are wasting a lot of solar energy.
For example, Brusaw says that if we exchanged one mile of a four-lane asphalt highway with a solar panel road of the same dimensions, it would produce at least 13,376kWh of electricity a day – a whopping 4,882,240kWh per year (or enough to take 500 homes off the grid completely). And that’s with an average of only four hours of sunlight per day.
He says the viability of the project lies in finding a glass surface for the panels that has the same traction qualities as asphalt, can withstand a fully-laden semi trailer braking hard at 80mph, can withstand the heat and cold, reduce glare while absorbing the sun’s rays and house the LEDs that make road signage so much more efficient.
But he says he’s spoken to scientists at Penn State University’s Materials Research Institute who told him they’d have no problem designing glass to meet his specifications (they just wouldn’t put a time limit on it).
Brusaw’s company Solar Roadways has been able to design a frame for the solar panels to sit in which makes them feasible for use as roads.
He’s optimistic that new roads laid of solar panels in a grid formation could power shops, homes, the road infrastructure etc. Brusaw believes the U.S. has an aging electricity pole infrastructure and that the average pole is roughly 40 years old, well past its use-by date. He says a road made up of solar panels wouldn’t need these poles so, rather than replace them, it’s time to bite the bullet and roll out his new idea.
Bundling services such as Internet, phone and cable TV, along with the electricity infrastructure of the solar panels, would further reduce costs and entice service providers to get on board with the idea.
Another great possibility with a solar panel road is embedding LEDs just under the glass surface. These would not only illuminate the dividing lines between lanes and the road shoulders, but could be used to display speed signs, warn of dangers ahead, even be interactive to show travel times, detours, changed conditions and directional arrows. Brusaw says you can light up roads like ‘runways’.
He says his research has shown that the average asphalt road costs USD$16 per square foot but only has a lifetime of seven years. He is hopeful of making the glass solar panels that last 21 years for $48 sq ft, which is a break even cost. When you add in the ‘free’ electricity you extract from it, his idea grows some legs.
Imagine how easy it would be to recharge electric cars from a road that generates electricity?
If adopted, Brusaw claims, solar roads would provide enough energy to replace to replace all centralized power stations, including coal and nuclear-powered electricity generation plants.