Blog Post

We don’t need solar roadways, we need to help unleash current solar panels

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.

204 Responses to “We don’t need solar roadways, we need to help unleash current solar panels”

  1. massologik

    First off, you need to do your research. Its blatantly obvious that you spent just a few minutes to skewar the SolarRoadways project, what remains to be determined is whether you are woefully misinformed and thus compounding your misinformation by omitting facts in this article or wether you are deliberately misinforming your readers.

    First off the money being raised, 1.8 million as of the moment I am submitting this comment, is not for a prototype, it is to go to manufacturing. They already have a working prototype parking lot, have done all the beta testing, engineering and if you had bothered to go back to the site you would know that an inordinate amount of changes and refinements have been made since the large square panels were the concept over 3 years ago! Now the panels are hexagonal in shape and the glass has been engineered to have the same or Superior grip as asphalt and exceeds all load bearing requirments for roads and highways. You ignore the fact that utility sized solar installations require putting aside large tracks of land when our roads and highways already have space alloted that can be used. There are many other areas where you get your “facts” wrong here. If you consider yourself an expert than you should also be aware that you have to check your sources and fact before submitting.

    Worse of all its your small picture poh pooing attitude that is killing North American ingenuity and progress. History shows there are many people who didn’t listen to their detractors and who revolutionized their world. Solar in all forms are part of our solution but Scott and Julie Brusaws solar roadway panels are simply a more elegant and avant garde option that will be ready for market in as little as two years.

    Before advising your readers about SolarRoadways you should try knowing what your talking about and being able to recognize disruptive technology. I’d be willing to bet you didn’t see digital photography coming either!

    • muddmike

      The only “traffic” that apparently has driven over their parking lot is a small tractor, which is shown driving slowly over the panels. They have the panels and can set some out where people can drive on them at traffic speeds, but they haven’t..

      They are also not very specific about the testing of the panels. They could show videos of the tests being done, but don’t. It would probably show that the 250,000 pounds was very slowly added to the panel. This is not at all like the forces that the panels will encounter in real traffic.

      They also have walked back on the melting of snow, as possibly not being practical in “northern” climates.

      They make no estimate of the cost of the concrete base with channels for cables and runoff.

      Why put solar panels in areas that are going to be shaded much of the day. Even their artist renditions show roads shaded by trees. Just look behind the moose crossing the highway.

  2. tcatsbay

    the first point of solar road ways is to raise awareness about innovation, aside from cost there are several infrastructure issues that the couple has not fully addressed and their system will not be able to handle. the second point is aesthethics. the solar panels from the roadway project look better than current solar panels. this gives homeowners in restricted communities the possibility of having a solar electrical system. plus they have the advantage of being multifunctional with the led system. most homeowner associations in this country do not allow solar panels on a roof on or standing in an array in a back yard. they could allow a solar drive way and walk way because it is not jarring to the eyes as current solar panels on a roof and it is more efficient than the solar panels that look like roof tiles. finally there are safety issues that the solar road way has addressed and current solar systems appear to ignore and that’s the “hot” issue of the electricity being produced. that issue is up to the homeowner to address if its a private system. doubt me, talk to your local fire department about the hazard of solar panels on a roof when a building is on fire.

  3. james gore

    Wake up fools! You are paying for all those solar electricity installations through your income taxes and your utility rates. If solar is so good why is this necessary?

  4. Charles D

    You make some very good points in terms of promoting existing solar technology and installations. I agree that the solar roadway project would be very expensive. However, I am not opposed to providing public funds toward this. One never knows with new technology like this exactly what may spin out of it with respect to new industries and higher paying jobs. Personally, I believe that the solar roadway technology would make far more sense as a solar sidewalk technology and perhaps that is how it may end up, for both private and public walkways.

  5. I live in the southwest so there is not really that much road maintenance because of snow and ice…. but I have a reasonably large solar system and unless I add a battery system any electricity I use at night cannot come from my panels. Not a single watt….. When it does snow here it is normally at night so not only would I not be able to warm my panels but they would be covered by snow and not producing power in the morning…. thinking about a road the same way, unless we want battery systems every few hundred yards on the highway I doubt that a solar system could deice itself without using energy from other sources…. and your snow is a problem when it gets deep….. not so much here….I think doing solar roads might work here but 200+ days of sun and way less than 12 inches of precipitation goes a long way to making something that would be worth it, but I think it would be much more cost effective to maintain incentives for home owners and businesses….. cities might can add some solar systems to help with their costs (and they do) but that really is not different than an individual.

  6. P. J.

    We can’t even fix potholes now ! What makes you think they maintain a roadway with solar panels built into them ? Put them on rooftops and shaded parking where they belong you idiots !!!

  7. Eddie

    I’m going to have to disagree to a point. It’s true that solar panels should be developed to be as cheap as possible but I do not think the solar roadway project should basically be downsized due to it’s large scope. The idea of a solar roadway is big and ambitious and if it actually works it could help with the energy crisis we’re bound to face. If it does not work, we learn, kind of like the rockets that never quite made it to the moon. There is wisdom in focusing on making conventional things better, but growth comes from experimenting with the unconventional. So I say let’s dream big and let the chips fall where they may.

  8. Rocco

    It seems the only folks who think this is a great idea have absolutely no idea what’s involved with producing PV power. One of the features touted is that these panels will generate heat to keep snow and ice off the roads. How does that work when the sun usually doesn’t shine when it’s snowing! Perhaps there are batteries in these modules. So we are supposed to believe the built in battery power will last long enough to keep the roads warm for days when the sun doesn’t shine in winter!? Oh and there’s that small problem of cost. The inventor estimates panel cost once they are in production at $10k per 12′ x 12′ panel!!! That’s 10 times the current cost of conventional PV panels. Yeah, it’s a cool idea and I hope they find a market for the product but taxpayers paying for this to pave roads is a pipe dream.

    • It seems that the only folks who are completely convinced this is a terrible idea haven’t bothered to understand how it works.

      Power for heating the roads would come from the grid. It would be offset by power generated by the tiles, but there is no need whatsoever for batteries.

  9. Absolutely agree with this article, well done! his pie in the sky stuff reminds me of too
    numerous to cite gov’t inspired solar boondoggle “investments’ that taxpayers got ripped for. Let’s get the4 costs of solar rooftop installations down to where most home woners would relish the opportunity to upgrade. How about using gov’t subsidies wisely for a change by giving tax deductions over 10-16 years (not tax credits) for the full cost of solar upgrades for homes and small businesses. then the industry would really thrive – but that makes way too much sense.

  10. Argyll

    Ya, we shouldn’t have built cars and airplanes while we had trains, either. We could have just put trains and streetcars everywhere.

    • muddmike

      Maybe that would have been a more environmentally friendly plan. Remember, National City Lines bought the trolleys in LA and then ripped out the rails. Major investors in NCL were Firestone Tire, Standard Oil of California and General Motors.

      Now the fastest way to travel 100 to about 400 miles is to drive an automobile. Try taking an airline to any small city. Not only are there only a few flights a day, but you have to fly twice as far and wait for hours at a hub airport. The airlines treat you the same way Fedex treats packages, except they also put all kinds of fees on top of the fare.

  11. daveG

    These kind of articles always raise my ire. The author brushes the surface and then forms an opinion. Many of the people commenting here do the same thing. To accurately draw a conclusion on the solar road concept, you need to take into consideration the cost of traditional road construction, underground utility installation, drainage, and then all of the maintenance cost associated with these structures. And salt cost? Well, that’s only one part of de-icing. What about the cost of the large trucks used to plow and salt the roads, plus the labor costs of the drivers and mechanics (all government benefits/pensions) required for this?
    Now do the same analysis for the solar road. I have no idea what these numbers are. But neither does the author or any one else who had commented here.
    One thing to consider: when you get your numbers for the solar road, now add up how many megawatts it will generate and subtract the cost of an equivalent power plant from the expense. And new power plants cost billions.

    • muddmike

      You clearly have no grasp of thermodynamics, well I do and I did an estimate for the cost of melting the snow off of Pennsylvania’s roads for one winter.

      It would take conservatively about $5 billion worth of electricity to melt the snow of an average winter in PA from all the roads, sidewalks and parking lots. This is considerably more than is spent now. In the winter this energy would mostly come from traditional energy sources. Since the sun is at a lower angle and up for less time in the winter, the south will have no solar power to spare. In the winter there are only about 10 hours of any sun, and only maybe 6 hours when there is enough sun to produce any electricity by solar power up here. During a snow storm it gets very dark even in the middle of the day. Many parts of the country are even snowier and colder than PA.

  12. Nowhereman

    I don`t understand a parking lot covered with solar panels if cars are parked on it wouldnt they block out the sun ? Putting them on a roof could be very costly what happens when your roof starts leaking ? You have to remove all the panels and then put them back up .

    • Argyll

      Large sections of parking lots are always in the sun. The driving lanes between parking spots and the parking spots themselves are usually only 60-80% covered if a car parks there. Then there is all the time the parking spots might be empty. In my apartment lot there are large numbers of spaces always vacant, and many more during the day.

      As for a roof leaking, that’s no more a problem with solar panels than any other roof.

      • muddmike

        Have you never looked at shadows when the sun is not directly above? The sun is usually shining at an angle, particularly in the winter. When the sun shines at an angle shadows are larger than the object creating them. So, except at noon in the summer, more than half the lot will be shaded.

        Even in the summer at noon, half the lot will be shaded and the other half will be operating at less than half efficiency due to scratched glass and the high temperature of the panels. On their site they admit that they need to make their processors capable of operating at 125 C. At 125 C the solar cells will be operating a less than half their rated power. Thus this lot will only be putting out about 1/4 of the rated power. Why pay for all of these solar cells and electronics and then put them where they are going to be working at far less than optimum. Having a smart parking lot is highly overrated.

    • Charles D

      I agree they don’t really make sense for a parking lot. A full lot doesn’t get much sun. Nor do they make sense for a roof (weight) and were not intended for that, anyway.

      • muddmike

        As far as roofs, the way to go now is solar roofing. It comes in either shingles of raised seam steel roofing. It does the work of the roofing material and the solar panels. It also gets around zoning regulations that keep people from putting panels on their roof.

        The solar road panels make even less sense for streets and highways where their lifetimes are going to be a year or two, not the 20+ years the “inventor” claims.

  13. Larry Smith

    Solar Roadways is cutting edge technology and research. The Federal Highway Admin. and GE would not have considered any money for them unless they’d done their homework. I’m glad that the researchers who perfected computers and cell phones believed in research, otherwise where would we be today?
    As for Solar Roadways, I hope their research and production capabilities increases to the point where the cost of their panels is much lower. Did you happen to hear Scott Brusaw state that the more they produce and sell the lower the costs?
    Science project? No, it’s called research and it’s good research.
    Replacing asphalt with solar panels is a fantastic idea! Imaging how much heat from asphalt would be eliminated! The “Island Cities” weather effect would disappear!
    Sorry Katie “the sky is falling” I disagree with you completely. BTW: What makes you such an expert? What are your credentials?

    • muddmike

      NO it is NOT cutting edge technology. They are just taking off the shelf technology and combining it in such a way as to insure failure.

      I am sure that Senator Crapo had something to do with the awarding of the money to his home state. The GE money was decided by a popular online vote from technologically illiterates.

      They still have not tested the glass for durability. See my comments above.

      They have use PR and pretty pictures to con a bunch of people who have little knowledge of science and technology. Their FAQ section is full of smoke and mirrors, and deceptions.

      Their muddying the freakin’ waters (they call it clearing the freakin’ air, but it doesn’t) section
      is full of ad hominem attacks, distortions and outright falsehoods.

      When they have to call anyone who makes a negative comment about this absurd proposal a “hater”, anyone with any critical thinking ability should see that they have nothing.

      I hope that eventually we reduce and eliminate fossil fuel use, but solar roads is not going to be the way.

      In the future the phrase “This is just another solar freakin’ roads project!” is going to be a standard phase used to destroy any renewable energy project.

  14. chris

    This is innovation at its finest. The emerging solar market will be just fine on its own, because there are a lot of advancements coming out in the next couple of years….for Example Solar3d. so if they keep going down this solar road way path they could start a new economic boost in the 20’s. The advancements made to roof top solar panels will shift over to road way panels, but for now they need to find ways to make them better and test them. Testing takes years. years to find out how they hold up against the weight of vehicles, and find the perfect set up and design ETC. Doing this now gives us a head start and I for one am saddened by your lack of vision for the future, people like you hold back innovation in America, because you lack the ability to think outside of the box.

    good day to you

  15. Sterling Pennington

    I don’t get it. What good are solar roadways? Roads don’t need electricity. Solar panels are slippery and poor paving material. Solar road panels are prohibitively expensive. Couldn’t money for a boondoggle like this be put to better use by trying to increase the efficiency of solar panels from 25% to 30%?

  16. Let’s face it, the people who sell energy are not keen on having consumers less dependent on their products and services. You cannot get an economy of scale until production has reached a certain level and unfortunately the only way to hit that mark is to either subsidize the technology at consumer level- and not a manufacturing level ,…let them make their markups to incite investment- or provide generous grants to those who help the country move away from foreign energy dependency

  17. John Mulkey

    Won’t happen in my lifetime. The costs to implement would be astronomical and the potential for maintenance issues are unlimited. What about lightening strikes that could fry whole sections (or the technology to somehow limit the effects) or the costs of dealing with earth movement beneath the panels. I’m all for clean energy, but the costs of digging up thousands of miles of pavement and replacing them with solar panels seems prohibitive.

  18. Dennis Conkling Jackson

    Stand on the earth in your bare feet and turn acknowledging each of the four directions while feeling the Earth in your fingers. Bring it to your forehead and out loud say “Aho” – Then give it back.
    Before you drink water from our Mother do not be selfish and honor the Earth by giving some back before you drink.
    Think of root causes.
    Anyone ever come up with figures about how much surface area we are stealing from the Earth for roadways and the effects? I am just getting phenomenal numbers just for freeways in the U.S.! The cities and all reflect and absorb radiant energy in unnatural ways- They are strangling us as well.
    I lived in a beautiful forest with all its animals. You said I was homeless. They imprisoned me when I lay down to resist and die as well. I walked in beauty on the Earth and with the beings in the old and best way I knew how. You put in a road and murdered the trees and owls and hummingbirds. The snakes and insects suffocated. A hideous caterpillar machine did this in one afternoon. You did not even heed the warning of the un-earthed fossils that spoke for millions of years.
    Think.
    What solar cells are for and what do they really, ultimately do in the big picture and to our probably suicidal species.

  19. Also missing the point when the article mentions to put roof top solar panels on ’empty land’, when solar roadways would conserve empty land areas for other uses, such as an area for food sources or population growth. Solar roadways would possibly lay over existing roadways and in so, make better use of resources. I think anytime that we can come up with a secondary use for an area such as these current concrete roadways would be welcomed. Not to mention the total land mass covered by concrete roadways is staggering. If we could figure out a cost effective way to utilize this available concrete land mass, it would provide more than enough energy for all.

  20. D.j. Jackson

    Katie…your ENTIRE post is about using current solar panels that proved to not take off in the same way Solar Roadways did. You are basically trying to lobby for an old concept and not evolve with one that has made itself into a much better overall creation. While yes having Solar Farms everywhere would be a great thing…however they do only serve a singular purpose. Solar Roadways are multi-purpose creation and do allot more then what solar farms would do. Honestly you sound like someone with interests in preexisting Solar Companies. So honestly Katie you should realize that the Solar Roadways are much, MUCH better then a normal server farm and should just roll with it. It works, it has multiple purposes, and once again does MORE then a normal solar panel will ever do. So I honestly ask you to except a change and an evolution of pre-existing Solar Technology. Remember in the Technology world a something will always evolve and form into something better, and this is what Solar Roadways are…the evolution of the normal Solar Panel.

  21. What we need to do is to move forward. There are all sorts of financial prohibitions for installing solar panels that are not there for fossil fuels. The problem is the playing field is not level, not lack of technology. Given that, we should proceed forward in any way we can. Given a level playing field, I do not disagree with the author, but the playing field is far from level.

  22. boris davis

    The project sounds cool, until one thinks about how it involves creating another big federal project. The working class will benefit little with an extension of the current system of electrical utility grid and tax energy usage that is in place, we pay, pay and pay! Non workers and Ruling elites benefit, but the workers continue to get hosed! A new generation of solar panels and battery storage will benefit those who work for a living reduce monthly recurring bills for utilities and monthly taxes on the utility statements. I would rather buy equipment and once and for all get rid of one big brother controlled system that is just another tax collection tool.

  23. Jason Ramano Hallstrom

    The issue this doesnt take into account is the fact the solar roadways projects are there to deal with space already being used. And with all due respect, im not turning my house into a giant solar collector thats going to blind me every time I drive up the road. There is a reason my city has outlawed personal solar collection on rooftops. The shine from them causes a driving hazard as well as its blinding to the neighbors at certain times of the day.

    Quite frankly this entire blog (I call it that because its not news, its someones opinion, and a bad one at that) seems like it is filled with the same level of bias the writer accuses GE of, simply from the other side of the coin. Perhaps we should look into who was paying HIM to write THIS.

    The fact still remains, regardless of cost, the solar roadways project is the best, most efficient source of power generation and moving our nation forward into the 21st century and beyond. With the solar roads we no longer need gasoline. Cars can be completely electric and draw their power right from the road itself. Thats the point. Its not just electricity independence, its complete ENERGY independence. Its cynics like this that prevent anything meaningful from ever being completed in this nation.

    • John Mulkey

      You can’t just say “regardless of the costs,” money will have to be generated for such a project. Where with the trillions of dollars come from? The costs of implementing solar roadways would be far greater than our ability to pay. While the benefits sound wonderful, we have to be realistic. I do applaud the inventor for his creative genius and I hope we’ll continue to search for ways to generate clean and affordable energy.

      • muddmike

        He is not a creative genius. This idea has been thought up by many. His only creativity is fooling enough scientifically and technologically illiterate people into giving him money.

        He does not yes have a product. The most critical component is the glass surface, which must be affordable, strong, durable and transparent. The glass will never work in the long run. Yes, it can withstand the force of the weight of a truck once in lab conditions, but when flexed thousands of time a day, and scratched up by sand and rocks, the glass will fail. If he were a decent engineer, he would have worked this out first. They have shown no evidence of doing any durability testing. The only vehicle they have shown driving across their panels is a tiny tractor which is only slightly larges than a lawn mower. It was also driving very slowly.

        He claims to be like the Wright brothers, but isn’t. The Wright brothers first tested their air frame as a kite and hang glider. They did many trials with many different designs. Then they tested the engine and propellers on the ground. THEN and only then did they try manned flight. Had the Wright brothers worked like these guys, they would have put their plane together and figured they could “work the bugs out” in flight.

  24. Build for the next Generation

    I think your missing the point. It’s an Ideal. It’s still being worked on. It could take years, decades even to get costs down to find the right materials, etc. But we didn’t go from the telegraph to cell phones the next day. Or the whole room size computers to Google glasses overnight. There is potential here. I’m praying for the best.

  25. Jay Melton

    Why not combine the roadway solar tech along with the piezoelectric tech they’re looking to put into shoes, etc? Cars and trucks moving down a roadway create a lot of downward pressure that could be converted into energy. Additionally, why not line busy roadways (not city streets) with small wind turbines….roads are rivers of heat, the hot air rises and presto – instant upward airflow.

  26. argenisortiz01

    Don’t be NAIVE Today’s solar panels are extremely inefficient and robust, brake easy and are a pain to install and develop, also leave a nasty footprint in the environment, the ones used by NASA in space satellites are 115% efficient the ones used on EARTH are barely 30% efficient, but if we start using materials like GRAPHENE that is a hard two dimensional honeycomb like material and by the way is FLEXIBLE, VERY STRONG, HIGHLY CONDUCTIVE, and TRANSPARENT to built solar panels that are 1000% efficient the world could be easily powered with just a GLANCE of the SUN.

  27. B_Rad

    I would not think Solar roads effort would inhibit development of standard installations.

    Soon installed solar electric production will be inexpensive enough that the significant costs
    will be storage and smart grid balancing mechanisms.

    It’s a shame that our roads contribute significantly to Urban Heat Islands and the demand for Air Conditioning.
    It’s much cheaper and aesthetically pleasing to plants trees to shade pavement
    than to replace the pavement with PV panels

  28. Tandorf

    Agreed. Besides, we should make an effort to put ALL major roads underground. Solar road ways would be limited to neighborhoods and downtown areas only.