Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Solar Roads will shine brightly in their failure.


"There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept." ~Ansel Adams

Maybe, just maybe, they’re on to something big.  That’s what people say when they see the images on Facebook; synthetic highways the color of AstroTurf, a trail of bright incandescent glowing as a car drives over or even a moose walks across it.  The ensuing social media post, entitled Solar Roadways, goes on to describe how Julie and Scott Brusaw, an unassuming couple from Idaho, have devised solar technology that’s ready to change the world.

Their idea is alarmingly audacious and plausibly simple enough to capture our collective imagination – to replace all the roads in the United States with special solar panels that collect the sun’s energy, even as we drive on them.

Their imaginative innovation isn’t just folly – Scott is an electrical engineer and the couple has worked on Solar Roadways for years, manufacturing a working prototype and rising to popularity with an Indiegogo campaign that’s raised $1 million so far from private contributors, including $400,000 in the first month.  Our Federal Highway Administration has already dolled out two rounds of funding to Solar Roads to advance the technology.

The concept works like this; instead of asphalt, we’ll replace all roadways and highways with their solar materials, impact-resistant panels that look like paving stones, covered in clear “smart” glass that is as tough as bullet proof glass.  The solar panels gather, conduct, and store energy from the sun’s rays, and are embedded with digital sensors and as well.  The solar panels are so tough that they can withstand a 250,000-pound truck driving over them, or a massive tractor, as the images of one test showed.

The panels would also serve to filter storm water off the roads, conduct electricity so they’d replace aboveground cables, and have heating cells so they’d automatically clear the roads of snow and ice.  They’d also have built in LED lights, so they’d light up at night, light up to show when an animal or obstacle is stopped in the road (like a moose or a stalled car,) and could transmit driving safety messages to motorists.  In theory, these roads would also totally eliminate our need for cars motored by fossil fuels because they’d be able to regenerate the batteries in electric cards as they drove over them. 

Ostensibly, buy replacing all the nation’s roadways with these panels, we’re be able to generate more than three times the electricity needed for all U.S. energy consumption. 

Sounds downright Utopian, huh?  There’s no denying that the idea of solar roadways is enticing beyond measure, but is it viable?  That’s where we run into a few bumps in the road (so to speak.) 

Critics of Solar Roadways (and the backlash is gathering like storm clouds,) point to a few fundamental reasons why the idea will never come to fruition, and is essentially a waste of time and money;

The first is cost.  There are approximately 29,000 square miles of roadways in the U.S.  It would take about 5.6 billion of these solar panels to replace all that surface area, at a conservative price tag of $56 trillion dollars.  And that’s just the cost of the solar panels – imagine the tab when we add in installation, ripping up our roads, highway shutdowns, etc.  Even if we grossly overestimate the cost of asphalt roads, solar roads are estimated at about 50% more than traditional roads. 

The second issue is one of practicality; imagine the infrastructure nightmare of actually doing the work!  The Federal Government now spends about $50 billion a year maintain our current roads, and we still have potholes and bad areas and construction shutdowns everywhere.  Can you even fathom how big a job it would be to rip up every roadway and replace it with solar panels?  Think of Boston’s Big Dig – a 10-year catastrophic cluster – and that was just one tunnel in one city!  To get it all done and convert entirely to an electrical infrastructure, while we still need to use our roads, would be so expensive and time consuming it’s unestimatable. 

So far, there has been a lot of cheering, back-patting, and superficial dollars thrown at the project – the pom pom’s are out – but how they’d come up with real funding necessary to launch this is still a mystery.  Solar Roadways has been uber-popular with the Google Solve and TED crowd, admirably so, but a million dollars will buy you a slick PR campaign these days and a working prototype and little else.

In fact, Solar Roadways lost out on GE’s $200 million Ecoimagination grant and if you added up all the clean energy grants all around the world we’re still only talking a couple billion clams.

The retort from the Brusaw camp is that solar roadways will bring in revenue in other ways – by creating jobs, producing spare energy to sell back to the grid.  They can also charge a nominal fee for reenergizing electric cars, and sell advertising space for electronic billboards on the roads.  Or, we could just put a toll every ten feet…

But the biggest obstacle to Solar Roadways comes, surprisingly, from serious clean energy advocates.  Quite simply, there are better ways to do it.  Instead of ripping up every road and replacing it with tech that needs to be driven over and maintained, why not just equip every rooftop in America with solar panels?  And build solar cell banks on the unused sides of highways and the medians? 

That’s the light bulb realization that will doom Solar Roads.  Already, progressive states like Oregon are building solar cells by their highways – not on them – to capture usable energy.  It’s a far more efficient method – they don’t need to worry about ripping up existing road, keeping new panels clean, glass durability, and how to store and relay captured energy.

Rooftop solar is far cheaper, easier to install, has a decade of innovation invested, and comes with none of the logistic hassles of solar-in-the-road.  Rooftop solar can turn toward the sun automatically and you don’t have to worry about shutting down a whole highway for maintenance or replacement. 

So the conversation comes back to the same one we’ve been having for 20+ years; why aren’t we utilizing solar power more in the United States?  Photovoltaics (capturing the sun’s energy) still only accounts for no more than 1.13 percent of America’s power production, yet it is free once the infrastructure is in place, never runs out and turns a problem (global warming?) into a viable solution for clean energy that can be phased in with little or no detriment.

20 years is also about how long the technology to generate solar power from unused spaces, or “distribution generation,” has been shining on.  You can put solar panels anywhere there is wasted space – rooftops being the main one (especially commercial) but also car covers, pool covers, car rooftops, etc.  Even the archaic U.S. Census Bureau estimates that installing solar panels on every home in America would produce 3.75 trillion kilowatt hours of electricity a year, about the same amount of energy generated in the entire United States in 2011. 

Already, we’re lagging far behind much of the world in solar and clean energy generation.  Germany has already implemented solar programs that produce enough energy on par with all of the United States (in a much smaller country with a colder, less-sunny climate.)  China has a stated goal of producing 8 gig watts of solar power from distributed generation this year.  Sun-rich Middle Eastern countries are even on board. 

Yet it seems that unless there is forced governmental regulation calling for certain solar and clean energy quotas from corporations (commercial roof space,) states, and municipalities, it’s unrealistic to think the needed change will occur one humble homeowner’s rooftop at a time.  And that is exactly where Solar Roads may succeed - publicity, bringing solar alternatives to our national awareness and back into our conversation, making solar energy marketable, cool, and within reach.  Indeed, the concept of solar roads may end up advancing the cause of clean energy in its eventual failure more than all other predecessors in their success.  For Solar Roads it may be a case of “Shoot for the moon, but settle for the sun.” 

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