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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.
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.
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.