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. no reason we can’t have both solar roadways – to make use of all that space that sits out in the sun all day long – AND better solar panels on roof tops, etc.

    • muddmike

      The solar roads WON’T WORK!. There are many major flaws in the plan that cannot be engineered away. There is no glass available that will last even a few years under road conditions. They claim to have tested their panels, but they apparently have not done ANY durability testing. Sand and other grit on the roads will scratch the surface. They even say on their page that quartz, which sand is made of is harder than their glass. When the glass is scratched it will become frosted and will cut the light that gets to the solar cells and the light coming out from the LEDs. The textured surface required for traction will also be ground flat. A road with just 10,000 vehicles day will mean 7 million tires running over each panel per year. Think of this as a giant belt sander. Each time a tire goes over a panel it will flex it. Glass is an amorphous substance, which means every time it flexes it will degrade a little, and 7 million flexes can add up. Tempered glass gets its strength from the surface being in tension from rapid cooling. The grinding will eventually remove the surface layer and the glass will be weakened and shatter.

      The only vehicle they have ever shown driving on their panels was that little tractor with low pressure tires, and it was driving very slowly. This is nothing like heavy trucks at 70 mph.

  2. muddmike

    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. why can’t we have both? Let private industry pay for the roadway solar systems. set up incentive for a company with large parking lots to get solar panels on the ground to offset their electric usage. Imagine Disney World’s parking lots – acres of flat blacktop covered in solar panels generating electric to offset the power they use there. Or hotel parking lots, or corporation parking lots. Roads are even better because in parking lots the cars block a lot of the sun during the day but still, why not do them all. Solar is cheaper and better for the environment than generating electricity.

  4. Sean Cook

    I think if they can get the product costs down, easy to install, different types for roofs, driveways, sidewalks, roads etc, and make it so we can call the electric company and/or electrician to hook up the writing after the install would be great and you should be pushing for better easier to install solar.

  5. muddmike

    So, you use solar shingles of steel raised seam roofing coated with amorphous solar cells. You get both roofing AND solar panels in one. This is a tested technology, and few trucks drive over roofs. Most roofs are also shaded less than the roads.

  6. What they are not telling you about the current rooftop solar arrays is that if you put them on the roof of your house when you have to replace your roof it will cost you three times as much for the roof. They have to remove the arrays then replace your roof then they have to re-install the solar arrays.

  7. Jason

    I’ve read several comments that it would cost too much energy to heat the panels to melt ice and snow and also how could that work if the panels are covered in snow when no light could get through. The parking lot that has been functioning all last winter has been snow and ice free. I’d assume that unless you have directly worked on the project with Scott Brusaw you don’t have the facts.

    Also, tech changes, advancements are made all the time. This is a great starting point for whatever the tech evolves into. We need more Scott Brusaw’s and less naysayers.

    • muddmike

      Actually they heated one panel with 72 watts from an outside source. That kept is free of snow. Since their panels are rated at a maximum of 52 watts, and will NEVER reach this rated power, how does this work? In the winter they might generate 25 watts for four hours a day if they are lucky. Maybe you should try reading their site carefully.

    • muddmike

      They said they only had one panel with a heater. They must have swept the snow off of half the panels in their “parking lot” before they took the picture. They are very deceptive people. Just like the picture of them shoveling mixed color glass into a wheelbarrow. In there FAQ section they admit that they wouldn’t have used that to make the panels. They did the video to deceive people into thinking they were really green.

      When asked about the visibility of their LEDs in the sun, they showed pictures of traffic lights and billboards, which both have shaded built in to keep sunlight from shining directly on the LEDs. Their LEDs will not be able to be shaded and will be under scratched up glass, which will cause even more glare and deflect the light from the LEDs.

      People have been working to improve glass for more than a hundred years. Finding a glass that won’t scratch and would be affordable would be a major breakthrough. Having a project like this rely upon a miraculous breakthrough is not very good planning. Science and technology are not magic, and just because you wish there were a glass that worked does not make it so.

  8. The only possible advantage to solar roadways is that the right-of-ways have already been established, no need to fight the enviro folks for space in the desert or fight other NIMBY situations.

    I could see putting panels in a parking lot for the novelty such that whoever owns the parking space claiming to be green while entertaining customers with nifty LED shows underneath their wheels.

    Beyond that, there are much more effective places to put solar panels, like roofs or open spaces where the sun shines a lot.

  9. Herbert Bert Sterling

    Simple concept: RIGHT NOW, your basic solar panel system is not financially feasible. It works to a small extent in the U.S. Southwest, because of an abundance of sunshine, very high electrical demand to power air conditioning during the hottest part of the day, and generous government subsidies and tax breaks. That’s what this article discusses, the fact that solar is BECOMING financially feasible due to the record low prices for photovoltaics. Ms. Fehrenbacher argues that we need to invest more in solar power to help bring it down to a cost point where it can compete with fossil fuels.

    Now, how does moving the solar panel off the roof and putting it on the ground increase the economic efficiency of a solar panel? Answer: It doesn’t. If solar roadways DIDN’T need to be made of super-tough material, if they DIDN’T have to carry traffic, if they DIDN’T have to melt snow, if they DIDN’T have to be imbedded with computer chips and LEDs and heating elements, etc., etc., etc. — I’m talking about just taking what you find on a roof in Phoenix and putting it on the ground — it would still be prohibitively expensive in the vast majority of the U.S.

    Solar roadways are a STUPID idea.

  10. samuel

    The prototype (beta 1 project) has already been deployed and installed. It is already yeilding a return on investment (albeit decades). There are advantages with the installed panels. they actually strengthen the parking lot material for longer life, a big consideration not calculated into the return. After this has been improved upon several times in every step of the process and the cost is cut in half within a years time, then manufacturing can be ramped up for more (beta 2 projects) to examine the strengths and weaknesses, In another year of testing and modifying deployments where the panels are twice as strong and last three times as long as any current pavement in place now.
    It will become viable for those many growing number of green companies, corporations as well as county and state governments who will jump on this as an investment with more than monetary returns. One company is already looking into this system providing the LED lighting for the lots at night using Tesla type battery storage. And for stadiums all across the US whose parking lots that would not have to be redone every other year and provide electricity for its own lighting during the day alone would yield a full ROI in 10 – 15 years.
    This guy sounds like the nay sayers who decades back thought that CAT Scans and MRI machines were way too expensive and would never make it in the marketplace. Well, in that case the price only went up and they still are looking for better machines than exist now, at twice the cost of current state of the art. And there are so many more examples. Like the Drug companies that were testing one drug for one problem and found it was a better treatment for maladies they had not previously imagined.
    Research for rooftop and roadway\parking lot solar panels can only benefit one another and significantly reduce costs and improve quality.

    • muddmike

      ” In another year of testing and modifying deployments where the panels are twice as strong and last three times as long as any current pavement in place now.”

      Those are total WAGs. They have done no testing of these panels in any real traffic situations. they just hand wave away the problems of scratching and dirt on the panels. They seem to ignore that scratches will weaken the tempered glass surface and the rough surface will be worn down, making the glass slippery when wet.

      They have at least three complex systems in each module, a computer, the solar cells and the LEDs. If any one of these fails, the panel must be replaced. Vibration and temperature swings will stress the seals that keep out water and the electrical connections.

      Rechargeable batteries are very expensive and last only a few years before they need to be replaced.

      “This guy sounds like the nay sayers who decades back thought that CAT Scans and MRI machines were way too expensive and would never make it in the marketplace.” The excessive use of CAT scans and MRIs is one big reason medical costs are so high in the US.

      Putting solar cells in places where they do not receive full sun most of the day, and where they experience a large amount of vibration and flexing is a bad idea. In a well used parking lot about half of the panels are covered. When people put solar panels on their roofs they don’t paint half of them black. They also don’t mount them behind chimneys where they will be in the shade. Even on their website their artist renditions show trees and building shading the panels. A sidewalk just north of a large building would only produce a small amount of electricity on cloudy days and almost none on sunny days. They payback period for these would far exceed the “estimated” lifetime of 20 years.

      The biggest problem with claims such as these is that it makes people think that some magic technology will make it so they can continue with the wasteful lifestyle so common in the US. The only way to stop many future problems is to stop the waste of resources and destruction of the environment that is the consumer lifestyle. The economy cannot grow indefinitely on a finite planet, and the chance that any significant number of humans can leave the Earth for another planet is exceedingly slim.

  11. Benjamin Daily

    I have to concur with the author’s conclusion, this is STUPID idea.

    Those people that are defending it are clueless.

    There are so many better, proven ways to apply solar energy technology and this concept is a waste of resources on a pipedream that is doomed for failure. Perhaps some highly durable form of solar panel will be developed from it and maybe that will be a good thing but even if they can make a better solar panel, why install it where tractor trailers will be driving over it all day or people will be shading it while parking. It is idiotic, period!

    This is the kind of waste of time and energy that the fossil fools love to see people do so they can say I told you solar doesn’t work.

  12. agiad

    Scott Brusaw convieniently ignores all the damage, mishaps, and inefficiencies these road panels will suffer. They will not be easy to fix, they will not work right. Standard asphalt and concrete roads have a tough time performing as designed, Brusaw suggests to increase complexity of our roadways by at least a factor of 100.

    This is a good thing?

    Think of how long it takes to get a pothole fixed, and all that basically requires is throwing a few shovelfuls of asphalt into it.

    Have at it, prove me wrong, but don’t spend my money on another boondoggle. We have real solar technology that is coming along. Keep the money in that dept.

    If Brusaw wants to work on hit-it-out-the-park energy ideas, then go to work on Thorium Reactors. Now there’s something that holds real promise…

    • muddmike

      Pothole repair is now even easier. Bethlehem, PA just bought a $120,000 truck that allows one person to fix potholes without leaving the drivers seat.

  13. mona ankeny

    I think roads and parking lots are good ideas for solar panels, they’re to hot for me to walk on, and we need all the help we can get. I also thinks that putting down new tech to help in huge problems like energy is for Haters and has no place in my day.

  14. oldgrumpysteve

    So, why can’t we have both? The more uses for solar power that are put in play, the more research and development we’ll have to make it all better. It’s not a zero-sum game.

  15. Tim Valentine

    Kate, your negativism rings loudest throughout this article. If cost is the biggest obstacle that solar roadways have going against it then why not let the economies of scale iron that out. You seem more worried about solar roadways competing for funding against solar rooftops. Why can’t we move forward with both? You sound like the minority of biology professors who whine about all the money being spent to save the Panda bear, complaining that it will take money away from saving the Polar bear or other endangered animals. I personally plan on handing off to my kids a planet where we are actively trying to save both. Similarly, solar panels on my roof and on public parking structures and yes on roadways, makes smart sense to me. Lets push the roadways project along and help it iron out the kinks. It has a lot of other merits besides generating KW, that appeal is going to bring in other investors from many diverse interests, why stifle that with you pessimism?

  16. Uncl Todd

    I can imagine dedicating a few hundred square feet of my concrete driveway to solar panels. Extremely low traffic, no heavy trucks, modest cost compared to the same project on a city street, easy access to my solar controls in my garage. Right now I will stick to adding 100 watt modular panels to the three I currently have on my roof. The cost per watt finally stabilized at about $1, even an old fart like me can afford to play solar experimentor on a small scale!

  17. cyndee newick

    The “problem” with solar panels is that once they are installed no one is making money off of them. Large solar installations, whether it is solar farms, roadways or panel leasing is designed to create companies who can then sell power to customers for a monthly fee. The future of energy is solar and people are trying to figure out how they can make money off of it and control it.

  18. Curious

    Maybe it will work, maybe it will not. Even a small scale test on a highway will cost many more million than has been raised. Make the panels and pave a mile or so road someplace in the snowy Midwest and see how they perform. The claims about them seem to be extravagant but who know it might really work. No one has a real cost estimate because the ones being made now are basically handmade prototypes. If they were made in a factory using robots to do most of the work, the cost would certainly be much less. Even so, the initial test might prove that the original claims are false. I see nothing wrong with do a small scale test and see how they work in the real world.