GE’s First Challenge Award to Solar Roads… Really?

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When GE announced in July that it would be launching a $200 million awards program with its VC partners to invest in smart grid technologies, I was pretty eager to see what sort of innovations would emerge. On Thursday, GE announced it will hand out the first $50,000 award to a project to build Solar Roadways (which is exactly what is sounds like) created by inventor Scott Brusaw. The idea was determined to be the winner though popular vote on GE’s website.

Come on guys, really? While the idea to create roadways out of glass-covered solar panels is a fun one, I was expecting a lot more useful real-world smart grid innovations from this contest. As Brusaw told Tech Crunch in a profile of Solar Roadways in August, the project is only in the prototyping phase, but is expected to cost $10,000 per 12 foot by 12 foot panel, so for the 440 panels needed to build a mile of a single-lane road, it would cost $4.4 million per mile.

Keep in mind those are estimates from the inventor, so are probably conservative. If we don’t have the proper financing in place to get very many solar panels built on the world’s rooftops, how will a Solar Roadway project get funding at those costs? This is assuming that Brusaw is able to work out the best and most cost-effective type of glass to cover the panels. I’m not even going to go into who would pay for these roads.

The Department of Transportation gave the team a $100,000 grant last year to start working on prototypes. On Brusaw’s website, he says Solar Roadways completed its first prototype 12 foot by 12 foot road panel in February, and has been working on adding the glass on top of it.

For $50,000, GE’s funding will enable Solar Roadways to build a 5-panel strip of road, 60 feet long. With the same amount of money, a software company could work on smart algorithms for applications for the smart grid, and get a lot more bang for the buck.

I’m hoping the remaining GE Challenge awards that will mostly come from the judges (not website voting) will be a lot more realistic and useful. But watch the fun video below anyway to see how Solar Roadways work.

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