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. williamimahere222

    Perhaps I’m missing something but as I understand it all solar requires battery storage to be used for night time and for heating?

  2. RemyNYC

    I both agree, and disagree. I agree that the market for rooftop PV systems is huge and only getting bigger. When solar reaches the mythical “grid parity” point, then, and only then, will you see local and state governments tripping over themselves to “install, baby, install!” I disagree with not pushing for solar roadways. This is the future. Our children, not grandchildren, will be driving on these roads, and thank the spaghetti-monster for that!

  3. Brian

    It seems likely that this technology won’t work but we won’t know till we try. Global climate change is such a huge catastrophe bearing down on us that we better try everything we can think of, and fast. Maybe solar roadways can’t be done economically, but that’s been said about many things that are in common use today. Why worry about $1.5 million? That’s nothing. if kickstarter only looked for things that were sure to work they would never do anything. Sure bets are what big business goes for. We need to look at ALL ideas.

  4. Resourceguy

    Yes! And if the solar roadway is a distraction, then maybe some of the rooftop and CSP projects are a distraction also. One way to clear the air is a step wise chart of cost by project type and the relative rate of drop of the costs in each. Also, a reminder on differences in rooftop install costs by country or market would be helpful.

  5. Thousanth_disquss_ID

    Do an in depth article on another brand new technology called the solar wind downdraft tower. They’re going to complete one in Arizona by 2017.
    1200′ high and 240′ across sprays continual mists of water in the top causing monumental 55 mph continual downdraft without the wind blowing or the sun shining. The air rushes to the bottom with openings turning a dozen turbines continually day and night. Can be built anywhere above temperatures around mid 90s and low single digit humidity. It’s on youtube. I think pound for pound and for the effort they can get farther faster with this new type of power installation but solar roadways is a great concept and idea. And don’t forget about to put the OLEV magnetic resonance wirelesses charging grids directly under neath the panels WHILE you have the roasd torn out. Don’t forget that. Youtube OLEV. Don’t you know about these other technologies? Much larger corporate sized ventures around for a while longer than this one.

  6. Tarlton Parsons

    What we need is to stop making energy decisions based on ignorance and fear and start evaluating options objectively. If you do that, and you make an effort to really understand the options, the conclusion that next generation nuclear is the only option that is really capable of replacing hydrocarbon (coal, oil, gas) energy generation. However attractive solar is–and I’m a supported–it is simply too restricted (only works in the daytime and in areas with significant sunlight). Nuclear works anywhere. And before you start throwing Chernobyl and Fukushima at me, please make the effort to understand the specifics of those events. 1) Chernobyl was an antiquated and dangerous design that would never be allowed to be built in any western country (you can build very dangerous gas power plants also, we just don’t). 2) Fukushima was built next to the ocean (due to the type of plant it was, which required ready access to water). Even though these were the worst nuclear accidents in decades (each generation design has been substantially safer and cleaner), nuclear power is far safer than coal. It is also far cleaner and produces less expensive power. In spite of that, coal is the most widely used and fastest growing form of power generation, and the reason is that solar is still too unreliable and too expensive. That’s why the coal and petroleum industries actively support solar and actively feed the fear of nuclear–because they know solar is no threat to hydrocarbon power generation, but nuclear is capable of fully replacing it with a much safer, cleaner and most cost effective alternative.

    Fourth generation reactor designs are the safest, cleanest and most cost efficient yet, and there is further improvement possible if we just stop choking off this line of development. The latest designs bring down constructions costs dramatically, provide passive shut down (making a Fukushima like event impossible), dramatically reduce the amount of waste and allow for waste material to be reused. And by the way, the waste material of coal power generation also contains radioactive materials, the coal industry just doesn’t want you to know that.

    And before you flame me for daring to suggest at least reviewing this option with an open mind, consider that by flaming me you are playing right into the hands of big oil and big coal, two of the biggest polluters of our world and industries directly responsible for the deaths of millions of people every year. Solar is definitely worth pursuing, but it can’t replace oil and coal. Nuclear can.

  7. Norm Frey

    Thanks, I had given up seeing a reasonable article on this lunacy. I am truly frightened for our future when I see how many people are so enthusiastic about crackpot ideas like this. Gizmag is an especially deep pile of bizzare concepts.

  8. David Olshaski

    I don’t believe every road would be a practical ideology for this product, I do see it’s integration into the transport system that would be practical in low volume large area systems such as suburbs and the like. The heating or lessening of street freezing issues should be secondary but a consideration with the augment of other attributes. The nature of the modules lends itself to creative systems that could power a further 12 to 20 percent of the power grid in all areas simply by injecting them into existing infrastructure plans. Low traffic and open areas like parking lots would be helpful to not only the business’s but the communities and lower the electrical costs in the long run. To much of the mentality at this point rely’s on the immediate gains and short term thinking, and not enough about next year or 10 years from now. Don’t mortgage the future with your a short sighted “i want” of today.

  9. mad mike

    Has anyone thought of all the space that current solar panel take up? so what if it cost 56 trillion dollars but it pays for it self in the long run. just in snow removal alone will help of set cost. it makes electric cars more viable. this should be the biggest deal to all the world not just the US. and we wouldn,t be using any more space than we already use.

  10. Mike Hillsgrove

    Actually you are dead wrong and quite visionless. Indeed, solar roadways do far more than provide power, although that alone would be awesome.

    What is invisioned in this roadway system are smart roads. These smart roads would be self lighting, saving billions on roadside lighting, would have attached sensors and warning systems and would even incorporate technology to charge electric cars as they drive and would be able to warn police of accidents and slowdowns. The better material would be tougher and eliminate potholes and other road hazards.

    If people thought like this author, we would still be using cobble stones for street building material.

  11. The Killa

    You’re a haaaaaater. Why not think of it as an apple an orange thing? Their next step may be to hire experts to make the current prototype better. What’s wrong with that? If the people want to see it come to fruition it will happen. The infrastructure will be built with solar panels. They are cost more effective, nobody’s disputing that. I for one would like to see this become a reality for no more that not having to shovel the snow from my driveway and sidewalk. So why not let this guy have his dream. Roadway? If it happen so be it.

  12. I would agree that widespread installation of solar panels on roofs should take priority over other forms of solar panel installations but everything else you said is relatively short sighted. The best use case for solar technology is installing it in areas that are already being used. Only after those areas have been saturated should solar technology be installed elsewhere. Acres of land that end up as solar farms when they could have been used for regular farms is a wasteful tradeoff.

    Therefore, having funds go to solar roadways is a great use of resources because without financial backing, the technology won’t be improved and its implementation will be slower.

  13. Beware about installing solar panels on you roof; once installed the price of a new roof just doubled if not tripled when it has to be replaced. My guess is the person who wrote this article has some kind of connection to the solar industry.

  14. Wayne Morris

    Solar is going to be held up until storage of all the daytime energy overproduction can be fed back into the grid during other demand periods. The politics of the powerful power company monopolies also needs to change in states like Florida.

  15. Was Katie, the author of this article, injured as a small child on a Solar RoadWay, or is she just using the success and the media buzz to try to keep her irrelevant article high on search engine rankings? To be honest, this article does say anything of value. The only reason I read it was because I love the idea of expanding our ability to produce solar energy without taking up more land. I also love the idea of city, county, state and federal government getting involved. It will take individual consumers too long to make a dent in our energy consumption. We need big business and government to propel us forward.

    With that said, individual consumers should take advantage of the cheaper solar efforts. I don’t see these as mutually exclusive tasks. In fact, as she pointed out, there were more solar panels installed in the U.S. in the last 18 months than in the last 30 years.

    We need a multi-pronged approach to free ourselves from our reliance on fossil fuels and the Solar RoadWay is just one dimension of the possible future.

    Katie. I apologize for the pain and suffering solar roads have caused you. Please seek help and write about something else. I’m worried for you.

  16. benalive

    If you are really for efficient solar power with a good business plan, focus your energy on pushing that rather then stoking your ego by knocking some one else’s idea, even if it is far fetched. Solar roadways, good luck.

    Katie, will the production of solar roadways hurt you in anyway?