204 Comments

Summary:

Solar roads sound cool. But what would be really cool is if current solar panels met their potential in the world some day.

solarpanel

Wow. A campaign to build a prototype of a parking lot made out of solar cells just raised over $1.5 million on Indiegogo. Over 36,000 people put money into the project.

While it’s a cool idea — and the project is accentuated with well-produced videos and a variety of nicely Photoshopped images — the world doesn’t actually need solar roadways. It needs to support the emerging boom in low-cost solar panels being installed on rooftops and in deserts and fields around the world.

I already wrote a bah-humbug column back in 2010 about the solar roadways project. Back then, the inventor, Scott Brusaw, won a $50,000 award from GE through its smart grid award program. Like with this Indiegogo campaign, the GE award was determined though popular vote on GE’s website; not via experts in business, science and engineering.

SolarCity_Copper_Ridge_School

As I mentioned in that article, in reality solar roadways that would meet any of the specifications that are being projected would be really expensive compared to the basic solar panels already on the market. Brusaw told TechCrunch in a profile a couple years ago that their prototype project was expected to cost $10,000 per 12 foot by 12 foot panel, which is probably conservative because it was a projection by the inventor before it was implemented.

Rooftop solar panels are at their cheapest time in history right now. And combined with new business models that help customers get the panels installed for free with a long-term electricity contract, a market for solar systems in the U.S. has opened up like never before. There were more solar panels installed in the U.S. in the last 18 months than in the last 30 years.

It’s a huge market. The market value of all solar panel installations completed in 2013 in the U.S. was $13.7 billion. And the good news is that it’s just getting started. In 2014, researchers predict 26 percent growth in the solar panel market in the U.S. with installations reaching nearly 6 GW.

SunPower California solar ranch

The technology to produce reliable and available solar energy is already here and has had many decades of market fluctuations and development to get it down to the price point where it is today. What the world needs now is more ways to open up access to capital for solar panel installations on roofs and on empty land, more utilities embracing distributed solar, grid upgrades to get ready for the coming solar panel boom, and more innovative business models to get these solar panels out there. One of the main things is we need to reduce the “soft costs” around solar panels, which can make up half of the cost of the solar system.

We don’t need new prototype technology to ruggedize solar panels to completely cover roadways. I’m not even going to go into the argument about whether or not this technology is feasible to meet the somewhat ridiculous (albeit it tongue-in-cheek) claims from the Indiegogo campaign.

Next-generation solar materials beyond the current solar panels will also be important one day and will need many more years of development to get them to the same low price point of the current solar panels. Those types of science projects are getting government grants, and some investment from large power companies.

An inventor that is interested in experimenting with this solar roadway technology is interesting, and clearly he’s an innovative guy. And if companies want to give his group some small grants to test out prototypes of the tech, I’m all for that.

But this project should not be getting any large amount of public funds, and any Indiegogo donators should have all the facts before donating to this project.

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  1. Thank you.

    1. Any solution controlled by the “System” will always yield skewed results. Make it simple. Bring back the likes of The Rural Electrification Authority and watch solar become commonplace. Just keep Utilities, lobby groups, solar leasing companies and politicians looking for a handout out of the mix and restrict utilities and government authorities ability to charge access and tax fees. Bet I just made the hit list in a lot of places. (Might be a workable idea for high speed internet too.) Do I hear any cries for cell/smart phone service?

  2. Brendan Kayes Thursday, May 29, 2014

    Agreed

  3. Of course the biggest problem with this article is the prototypes have already been installed on the parking lot. The 1.5 million is to take the steps between prototypes and manufacturing a product.

    1. The more cars parked in the parking lot the more shade and the less solar power. Jon

  4. Kevin Casper Thursday, May 29, 2014

    The article totally missed the point. They already have a parking lot full of prototypes. The next step is manufacturing a product.

    1. Their next step is to hire experts to make the current prototype better. (that’s what their video says). There’s no way $1.5M can fund any type of commercial production at any type of scale. That’s just not realistic.

      1. And yet Scott Brusaw, who is on facebook frequently answering questions, is talking about having the first batch of product ready to sell in a handful of months.

        1. And you believe everything on the internet? Solar roads is the one of stupidest idea that kickstarter has funded so far. It would cost over 50 trillion dollars (more money than all the money in the world combined) to pave half the roads in the US with these gimmicks.

          And idiot who funded this nonsense deserves to have his money stolen.

          1. Explain how they would hold up better than Concrete and Asphalt roads, how they would or would not need to be “graded” clean or snow and ice and the gravel and grit that would fall from trucks and cars would not grind the surface of these modules to an ineffective surface for allowing sunlight to be captured.

            1. Pretty simple, there would be no gravel since the road surfaces would not be made from gravel… and they wouldn’t need to be cleaned of snow and ice because they are HEATED to MELT snow and ice… Please read the website regarding solar roadways before asking questions that you are obviously asking purely out of lack of education.

            2. Gravel will come from outside sources and even dust alone would be enough to make the surface of the glass worn, blocking out most of the sun. Not to mention dirt and oil, and all other kinds of obstructions of sunlight to such solar panel roads.

              Secondly, the heat required to melt snow isn’t even practical. Even if the solar panels ran at 100% efficiency, they wouldn’t generate enough power to heat and melt even a light amount of snowfall. Not to mention the power panels themselves will be producing practically no energy at all during a snow storm…. It’s simply not practical and it is a waste of money when there are better eco friendly options out there.

              “Please read the website regarding solar roadways before asking questions that you are obviously asking purely out of lack of education.” – Such mockery when you can’t even understand the basic and blatant problems with such an idea, makes you look rather bad.

            3. actually it makes you look rather bad, since the site and video stated that these panels and the surface composite material had already passed and surpassed the testing by the govt dept. of transportation. These panels are also going to be installed in driveways, recreational areas and they have a backlog of parking lot owners that are requesting them. If individuals wish to purchase for their home, that is what is being offered for production. Most likely a kit to by sorta like those Eagle Homes that allow you to build a house.
              But being negative without doing the research to answer the questions you are stating, or claiming that these issues make the panels unsupportable then it makes you look more foolish than the one calling you out on not doing the required research.

            4. Actually the testing was done at academic labs, not the DOT. They are also very vague about their testing. The impact tests were surely done without panels that had been scratched, and sand and many small stones will scratch glass when ground into them by heavy vehicles. There force test was a static test which means the force was slowly increased, which is completely different from the forces that traffic starting, stopping and turning on the panels would be. The panels are made of tempered glass which gets its strength from the surface being in tension. When you scratch this surface it will weaken, which will eventually lead to catastrophic failure. This glass will shatter like the side and rear window of cars.

            5. Blaine Edwards God Thursday, June 5, 2014

              Think of what you just said? Where does the power from the heat come from? From solar? No. If the sun cannot produce enough energy to melt ice on a asphalt road (black and absorbs all the sun light), what makes you think a panel that can only absorb 25% of the sun’s energy and then put it into a heater element would be able to do it? Therefore, you need to have an external source of power which buys you nothing. Can the idea be improved? Yes. But I think there are already improvements out there that make better business sense.

            6. If you had roadways all covered in solor panels then diverting the energy produced from SR 143 in Arizona to the snow covered roadbed in Wyoming would not be a stretch. You are assuming that the one panel has to generate enough energy by itself irregardless of the network it is connected to. The entire system would generate more than enough electricity to do this.

            7. I did a simple calculation which anyone who completed college chemistry can do. The minimum amount of energy needed to melt a single 8 inch snowfall on just 1 mile of two lane road would be 22,000 kilowatt-hours. That is more electricity than my home with electric water heater and clothes dryer and central AC uses in 4 years. Pennsylvania has more than 120,000 miles of roads, many of which are more than two lanes and also a sizable area of sidewalks and parking lots. Transmitting electricity from Arizona would yield a transmission loss of about half of the power. Also, my calculation assumed that ALL of the heat went into melting the snow, that the snow was right at freezing temperature, and the water was at the same temperature. I assumed no loss of heat to the ground or air, and not evaporation of water which would take away a significant amount of heat.

              I have read over their site and see many overly optimistic assumptions and a complete lack of mentioning of many problems that their roads will face.
              They clearly are aiming their site at people who have little knowledge of science and technology, which is the vast majority of the American (and world) population.

            8. I can see your skepticism is healthy but you over complicate the problems by only looking at a few seemingly pesky issues and not extolling any of the benefits. The system is obviously grid ties with possible battery storage every few miles or so. Yet there are a lot of missing details, probably for trade secret reasons. If you are going to melt 8 inches of snow the only thing you have to do is make sure the road surface maintains a temperature of 40 deg F you don’t have to heat the surfaces to excessive temperatures. Snow does not fall 8 inches at a time so a it falls it melts and is shuttled away by the accompanying through system. Also because you’re not draining the water from asphalt it’s less of a load to water treatment plants and sewer systems. No shoveling, no road salts no freezing and thawing of micro cracks that eventually become tire blowing, car swallowing pot holes. Initial expense may be higher but less long term overall maintenance may be cleaner and more cost effective. My county blew their snow removal budget by over 100% from $1.3 million in 2013 Jan – March to $3.47 million in 2014 The neighboring county which has more land area and so more road mileage went from $5 million in 2013 to $8.8 million in 2014. Add to overtime paid to the drivers on call ordering more salt when the amount you planned for runs out waiting for delivery. Amortize that over the last decade of snow removal costs and pot hole repair and road repaving (which gets done every 2 – 3 years around here ) not to mention the costs to the local economies then do the real math. Don’t just throw in a minor detail that was not addressed and say this proves the system should not be supported. Of course there are a lot of established economies that will resist the change. Seasonal worker that do the plowing, asphalt companies, oil companies selling asphalt,tire repair companies that see their business fall off. But the other side of this is the local economies in winter climates will not fall off dramatically in extreme winter weather that at times seem unrelenting. fewer snow days during winter school month.

            9. The whole plan requires a durable, affordable and transparent cover. They do not have that. While the panels can withstand a single test, they will be flexed millions of time per year. By its nature glass slowly degrades every time it flexes.

              As for the cost of snow removal, I did a quick calculation of the cost of the electricity to melt the snow in PA in a typical winter. PA gets an average of about 32 inches of snow per year, or 4 8 inch snowfalls. I calculated that the minimum amount of electricity needed to melt a single 8 inch snowfall from just 1 mile of two lane road is 22,000 kW-hrs. PA has about 260,000 mile equivalents of pavement, counting the multi-lane roads, sidewalks and parking lots. So 22,000 kW-hrs X 4 X 260,000 = 23 BILLION kW-hrs. That is assuming no heat is lost to the air of ground, and there is no snow drifting. This electricity will mostly come from nonrenewable resources because in the winter with the sun low in the sky, even in the south, they will not produce enough electricity for their own use and snow often falls at night.

          2. Where does the electricity come from to heat the road at night or when it is cloudy, snowing or a ice storm? No sunlight, no electricity! I know the Sun is always shinning somewhere but at night it is just dark.
            There will be sand and gravel every time the State Maintenance trucks go out to sand the roads. Unless they use organic kitty litter.
            I can see it now parking lots full of solar panels, with signs that says “No Parking during the day”. The reason, every parked car will block the Sunlight from hitting the solar panel.
            Have you every enjoyed the nostalgic sound of driving on a brick road? Imaging the click click sound of every panel at 70 MPH.
            Solar Panel Highway a Bad, Bad idea whose day should never come.

          3. I don’t believe you understand the concept at all.
            Not only would these interlocking solar panels create electricity, but they are programmable for highway traffic warnings, lane changes, melting ice and snow on sidewalks, rides, and in the parking lots.
            And your 50 Trillion dollar comment is pure BS. You start with parking lots and sidewalks. You expand to a couple of back roads that never get sanded, shoveled or plowed, but are now safer than ever. These roadways could actually save many, many lives, and even you can’t put a value on a life!

            1. You are a joke…..obviously you never drive on back roads so you don’t understand that they are not even blacktop but gravel tar ….and you have no concept of how the vast majority of the cars leak and drip nor the weight of semi trucks and trailers! I am all for the testing phase as long as the cost of it is solely on the investors and not one cent from taxpayers and they remember to have the trucks with oversize loads run across them as well and not just a smart car.

  5. Well put.

    As an aside, you frequently post the image at the beginning of this article. Where is it from?

  6. Nick Richardson Thursday, May 29, 2014

    Couldn’t agree more.

  7. SolarCurator Thursday, May 29, 2014

    Thanks for the words of reason, Katie.

  8. You could be correct, and I trust your facts. However I don’t think you should say that “the project should not be getting any large amount of funds”. That is $1.5 million dollars that is now going towards solar panels that probably wouldn’t have otherwise. Perhaps we don’t need the solar roadways ( personally I think it seems a little over the top), but Scott is getting people interested in clean energy which is a great start.

  9. You could of course be right, and I trust your facts, however I don’t think you should say that “this project should not be getting any large amount of public funds”. Perhaps solar roadways are not necessary (I think they seem a little over the top myself), but that is $1.5 million dollars that have now been contributed to solar panels that may not have otherwise been spent on solar panels. Scott has gotten people interested in clean energy and that is what is important.

  10. While I agree with your assessment in regards to costs in relationship to how much energy these solar roadways can produce, I have to disagree with your dismissive tone as I am someone living in Michigan where we have constant road construction thanks to the constant freezing, thawing, and salting of our roads. I would argue that, energy creation aside, solar panel roadways could be incredibly efficient in reducing the costs of road construction and maintenance in northern states. Emphasis on the could -obviously Mr. Brusaw’s invention is still in the earliest stages of development. Michigan currently requires over two billion dollars to repair its roads and will require a little over 1 billion dollars a year to maintain these roads; I can’t help but see solar panel roadways as a potentially more cost effective building material than concrete and asphalt.

    1. Couldn’t agree more. If these solar roads were used for nothing more than keeping the roads warmed and clear of ice and snow, and the ease in repair vs potholes in asphalt, it’s worth the investment and consideration.

    2. That seems pretty optimistic. Concrete and asphalt are cheap. Assembled electronics packages are expensive, both in up-front cost and in maintenance. I get the argument that if you can prevent freezing, you can save some damage, but you won’t eliminate it completely, and in the meantime, you’re burning energy as heat. I don’t have the numbers to do the math, but I bet salt (and even its associated damage) are drastically cheaper than the cost of the energy needed to keep a whole road above freezing. Even if it’s generated by the panels themselves, that’s energy that could go elsewhere, to greater effect. That’s not even getting into the safety issues of assuming such a system would work flawlessly in extreme conditions. Safety concerns would likely require salt as a failsafe anyway.

      1. Brad, if you’re from Michigan you would be pretty optimistic about this invention.

        I don’t know if you read the current costs to maintain Michigan roads. Billions each year. Obviously these solar panel roadways aren’t a for sure done deal or perfected product, but the theoretical application is worth investing in simply on the grounds of reducing the frequency in material and repairs tied to road construction. Rather than the yearly (sometimes biannual) full repaving of roads, being able to simply replace individual pieces, even if expensive, should still be surprisingly cost effective. And the actual construction of roads using these hexagonal panels, at first glance, seems like it could take substantially less time to complete than our current processes.

        Additionally, asphalt is constantly rising in price, still cheap -but being an oil based product, it is in a sense a finite material.

        Usable energy aside, it just seems like a far more efficient building material in the long run.

        There are tons of things still needed to be considered to make these a viable option, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth investigating ASAP.

        1. Finally a voice of reason. Here’s a thought (not original), return to the idea of putting solar panels back on the White House and every other Federal government building. How about our do nothing Congress set a good example for a change.
          As for the solar road, I have to agree with Kyle. Let’s at least pave a few roads to give it a try. Interstate 40 from OKC to Flagstaff would be a great place to take a few miles and test it out.

        2. “Rather than the yearly (sometimes biannual) full repaving of roads, being able to simply replace individual pieces”

          If that’s your argument, why not install concrete pavers? They are replaceable, relatively cheap, and don’t require wires.

          “…even if expensive, should still be surprisingly cost effective”
          I think you’re overlooking the cost of interconnects and a decent substrate to handle vehicular traffic.

      2. I think you are right, Brad, in being skeptical of repair costs being cheaper between asphalt versus the technology costs of a solar panel, but I think that Kyle makes a good point, as well, that you would be replacing isolated panels, rather than full sections of a road. I’d be interested to see what the cost estimates would be of a single panel versus a, say, 15-foot section of road (or more). I would also wonder what sort of impact salt might have on roadways if a panel went out and we needed salt to treat that part of the road.

        On the other hand, If the solar panels generate the energy to heat the roads themselves and are a source of energy that previously did not exist, how would that be a cost that outweigh the cost of salt? If, at the worst, heating the roadways used up all energy generated by the solar panels (which I find unlikely), then we are just left with the same amount of energy we had before. Otherwise, it’s still generating clean energy that we didn’t have before.

        I can see the argument of putting more focus on improving the technology we have, but also agree that any push for cleaner energy is probably a good thing, plus this might have wider cost-saving implications, as well. I understand the argument here that we should put our focus first on what is more cost-effective to get going, but I’m a fan of going for everything that can help us create more renewable energy (turbines, hydroelectric, solar), so I’m not crazy about the tone here that pretty much dismisses this concept as not worthwhile.

        1. one thing people seem to be forgetting is SOLAR does not produce electric during the hours of dusk to dawn when temps are generally at their lowest, so electric companies would need to supply power to the road ways during the night unless battery technology makes leaping advancements. I love the idea of solar roadways that can help with freezing roads and have led lighting for road markings and warning systems. Not only that but by making these roadways we can move electric lines underground and help provide passageways for future advances ( fiber optics ).

          1. Hello Nate the reason why it is not a concern that their solar roadway would not create energy during the coldest hours is because of grid integration. You see throughout a 24 hour period of time the price per kWh is constantly fluctuating. This all has to do with supply and demand. During peak hours and throughout the day when electricity demand is higher its feeding into the grid while at night its going to compensate by pulling energy from the grid. Because of lower demand for power for houses and establishments during the night the additional energy used by the roads won’t put any strain on the power grid.
            Overall it should theoretically generate a much larger amount of power during the day than it uses during the day and night together. Also one additional MAJOR important benefit people are overlooking is the enormous benefits to our power grids which would result from widespread adoption. The roadways could reduce the strain on the power grid due to high demands for power during peaks and because most sources of energy don’f fluctuate significantly in production from day to night, all that energy which normally is classified as waste energy would them be used for the roadways. That means your other sources of energy production would not have to boost output at night, rather the overall output could theoretically be reduced.

            1. If their panels worked as advertised, which they won’t, there would be a vast excess (Maybe 10 times the demand) of electricity in the middle of the day. Since there are no cost-effective methods of storing the electricity, they would have to disconnect most of the panels or risk destroying the grid and everything attached to it. You will still need to generate all of the electricity needed at night by conventional energy sources. During the winter, when the sun is lower in the sky and there are fewer hours of sun you would need to supplement the solar power with conventional, particularly when snow was being melted.

    3. As a civil engineer with experience in road design and pavement design using pavers (essentially what solar roadways are) I can confidently say they will not make road construction cheaper they will only make it substantially more expensive and more difficult to build.

      For starters when pavers are used in trafficable roads a full depth reinforced concrete pavement is built below the pavers. While paver roads have a longer design life it is incorrect to assume there will not be any maintenance required. Pavers will crack and in the case of solar roadways, solar panels will fail. Replacing pavers is more expensive than replacing asphalt in a standard road way.

      Solar Roadways will also require an electrician to install the panels so this will increase labour costs.

      There are fundamental pavement questions that haven’t been answered this suggests to me that they are completely ignorant to pavement construction or they are deceiving the public to get funded.

      If they ever want these panels installed they will need to convince civil engineers like myself to specify them. They are not even close to doing this. Their target audience isn’t even engineers it’s the general public who is oblivious to the fundamental issues of their proposal.

      1. nobody is saying there wont be any maintenence required mr. engineer of course maintenence will be required.

      2. Michael MacDonald graycanning Monday, June 9, 2014

        There’s no reason that replacing a module would require an electrician. Most likely they would just plug and unplug simply. Asphalt is probably cheaper to install, but it doesn’t do anything just laying there to pay for it’s initial cost. You pay for it, then it rots away and you pay for it again. If solar panels generate enough money through electricity to offset their installation and repair costs, they are already better than asphalt. The numbers seem to bear this out as well. So, I’m not sure what your argument is here? Solar roads are an investment that pays dividends. Regardless of initial cost or maintenance costs. Asphalt is just throwing money away. So your point is really pointless. The other option would be to run cheaper solar panels along side the roads. That might work on some highways, but then you have to get the electricity from the highway to the people that need it, etc. Solar roadways can be implemented right in the cities that need the electricity the most.

        1. “Most likely they would just plug and unplug simply”
          Is this plug water & freeze proof? What’s under the panel, sand, gravel, or a base that the panel plugs into?

          ” If solar panels generate enough money through electricity to offset their installation and repair costs, they are already better than asphalt.”

          But they don’t. It’s hard enough to get panels on your roof to pay for themselves.

          You really should look at how much energy it takes to phase change snow into water vapor. You just can’t melt snow into water, that just makes slush.

          It might be a great idea in concept, but the implementation details are going to kill it.

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