Driving into the future on solar Roadways?
Remember Solar Roadways? As a fresh reminder, Solar Roadways became massively viral a few years ago after claiming to be the end-all solution to the global energy crisis. The idea was to implement solar panels into the road to produce electricity. The panels allegedly were also going to light up the roads with different LED patterns replacing painted lines. For the winter, heating coils could melt snow and ice- all while generating electricity and requiring less maintenance. It seemed too good to be true…
The solar roadways, made out of glass and underlaying solar panels
Ever since inventors Scott and Julie Brusaw went public with their idea of building solar-powered LED roadways, they have faced constant attacks and skepticism and even outright hostility.
The reaction was expected given how technically difficult it would be to execute their vision of electrifying roads and highways with reinforced solar panels. Many fossil fuel companies and their workers questioned – of course – whether the application for solar is even necessary.
But one organization — the by far most important agency governing America’s roads — was willing to give them a shot at proving funds for their concept.
The roads are pressure sensitive and light up automatically
In 2009, after a couple years of research and development in their driveway, the Brusaws secured a $100,000 grant from the Department of Transportation for their Solar Roadways. The grant was supposed to be used for gathering information from engineering experts in a variety of fields and developing a concept based on the findings.
“I didn’t need that much money to have a bunch of professors write a paper. So I asked [the DOT] if we could simply build a prototype,” said Scott Brusaw.
In February 2010, the Brusaws built their first panels, a 12-foot by 12-foot array without solar cells, to test whether the underlying electronics would work.
It was in that year, that Solar Roadways won a $50,000 community award through GE’s Ecomagination challenge, giving it another pool of money to keep experimenting.
Then, in 2011, the DOT followed up its initial support with a $750,000 grant to assist Solar Roadways in developing a second “parking lot” demonstration array with solar cells, LED lights, and a heating system built in.
The DOT’s role wasn’t just to hand out money. The department also helped test the arrays to figure out if they were actually safe, functional and able to withstand punishing road conditions.
Earlier this year, Scott Brusaw, himself an electrical engineer, decided he needed more financial resources beyond government grants in order to hire full-time materials experts and civil engineers to prove the concept. So Solar Roadways started an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign and created a hyped-up video to attract potential donors.
The campaign was successful, bringing in incredible $2.2 million for Solar Roadways fantastic concept. The reaction to the fund-raise ranged wide. Some were convinced it was an outright scam.
The streets can automatically turn on their lights as a warning, in case of accidents
With those assets, plus funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation, the team was able to refine their smart road tiles, which contain solar cells, LED lights, a heating element, and wireless communication. They completed a public installation, complete with the ability to displays an image of Earth. They are also installing small arrays in Colorado and Maryland. Yet they see much bigger potential for the panels than just using paved space to generate energy for the grid.
Solar is popping up just about everywhere, even landfills and parka pockets. So why not roads? Indeed, solar road projects are gaining interest around the world, and some promise to even charge electric cars while moving.
The Netherlands built the first solar road, a small bike path, in 2014. France announced a bolder move over the next five years, it plans to install 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) of solar roads, designed to supply power to five million of its people.
“World’s first solar Road” – France
In fact, France opened the world’s first solar road for cars, in a Normandy village. The 0.6-mile route in Tourouvre-au-Perche is covered with staggering 2,800 square meters of electricity-generating solar panels. The goal is powering street lighting.
The project, which cost around 5 million Euros, is expected to be used by about 2,000 motorists a day.
German company Solmove aims to bring solar panels to German roads, and Idaho-based Solar Roadways has received three rounds of U.S. government funding (plus $2 million in venture capital) to test its technology.
“We have interested customers from all 50 states and most countries around the world,” says Julie Brusaw,
“We are in talks about some very interesting projects,” she says, noting the Missouri Department of Transportation wants to install the panels at a rest area along the I-70 highway. The couple say their tempered-glass panels offer asphalt-like traction, support the weight of semi-trucks, include LEDs for signage, and contain heating elements to melt snow and ice.
Could solar panels really pave the roads of the future? Proponents see endless possibilities, but others raise questions about cost, efficiency, and durability.
“The sheer amount of surfaces each country devotes to roadways is enormous,” the Bursaws write on their website. “Allowing this space to double as a solar farm could have very positive implications in the battle to put a halt to climate change.” They estimate that their panels, if used in lieu of existing U.S. roads and walkways, could produce more than three times the electricity used in the United States.
Besides, they say their panels could charge electric vehicles, first on solar parking lots. With enough solar highways and cars with the right equipment (to pick up energy from induction plates in the road) they might even be able to charge vehicles while moving.
THE COST CHALLENGE
The global road network spanning an impressive 16.3 million kilometers, it seems very reasonable that covering them with solar roadways could generate a substantial amount of electricity. Assuming the average road is 8 meters wide, the area accumulates a whopping 130,400,000 sq/meters. Placing solar panels on a mere fraction, in theory, should generate enough to power the entire world. However, it is only achievable under the best of conditions- when the solar panels are in direct sunlight.
On a tradition solar farm, solar panels are angled towards the Sun to maximize efficiency. On more advanced farms, the panels are made to track the Sun, further improving the amount of energy it can extract. Optimizing the amount of light the panels are exposed to is imperative to run a cost efficient system.
On the other hand, solar roadways that lay flat minimize the panels’ exposure to direct sunlight- the optimal angle to absorb light. With the panels remaining non-parallel for most of the day, a significant amount of light is deflected resulting in major power losses. Laying a solar panel flat result will result in a 60 percent power loss in comparison to a tracking solar panel.
LED’s are difficult to see during the day
One of the features of the roads was to include LED’s that would replace the necessity to paint lines. However, a critical balance must be met by making the lights visible, yet not drawing too much power to make it an inefficient system. With current LED’s, the power consumption is still too high. LED’s in traffic lights use shielding to block out direct sunlight. On the road, solar roadway lights would be constantly exposed to direct sunlight. The lights would be incredibly difficult to see during the day. At night, they would be easily visible, but it causes an inherent problem. With no power being produced at night, the lights would be drawing electricity directly out of the grid. Without batteries, electricity acts as a use-it-or-lose-it system. The Solar roadways that are being used today face this significant issue.
Further restricting the roads ability to produce electricity arise from the properties of glass itself. Glass is incredibly soft in comparison to traditional road material. With a glass layer, dirt and rocks will accumulate on the surface and will act as an abrasive material that will scratch and wear the road quickly.
Polymers are also considered to construct the roads, however, most polymers are very expensive to manufacture in sufficient quantities to build a whole road capable of withstanding the constant force of traffic. The material is also typically made from fossil fuels, defeating the main purpose of using solar panels to reduce the carbon footprint.
As the panels wear out, the glass material will also become opaque. The clarity of the glass would significantly degrade the panels ability to collect light over the time. All of that will make the solar roads very maintenance intensive.
With the materials available today, the idea is maybe not quite feasible in the way it was planned initially. Significantly more research is required to develop a viable solution. Although, it may be maybe a better idea to tailor the placement of the panels and put them places where the can be in the direct sunlight. Building a shelter over roads and layering the roof with solar panels is more practical and significantly more efficient. Perhaps introducing a roadway cover that extends above the road with solar panels on top could be a possible solution. To cover lesser frequented streets or parking lots with this technology is in our opinion still a very good use for this technology at its actual stage of development.