The concept of solar-powered roadways has been proven, but environmentalists wonder what it will take to mass produce them and install them on highways and byways across the country.
By Ellen Cools
Just a few years ago, many people found the possibility of solar powered roadways absurd. However, several scientists now believe the idea has real potential. Scott and Julie Brusaw came up with the idea eight years ago as a way to reduce greenhouse gases.
Their company, Solar Roadways, builds glass-topped solar panels that can withstand the weight and wear of trucks and heavy traffic. Simultaneously, these panels will produce electricity for revenue and possibly for charging electric vehicles. Moreover, LED lights inside panels create road markers and even produce advertisements. Despite facing a large amount of initial skepticism, mass-produced solar roads have the potential to cut nearly 75 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. The project has received federal grants, as well as $2 million in fundraising on IndieGoGo.
However, mass production of these solar panels still faces many complications. The panels are extremely complicated, with three different bases. The first layer is the road surface—the glass is bulletproof, ridged to provide traction but translucent to pass sunlight to solar cells. Underneath this is the microprocessor board for sensing loads on the surface and controlling heating elements. The heating elements are necessary in order to melt snow and ice, or else the solar panels cannot absorb the sun’s energy. This in itself poses complications, but could potentially result in the collection of freshwater through a purification runoff system. Finally, the third layer is the base plate, which distributes the solar power and data signals to homes and businesses connected to the roadway.
This complicated process means that one panel is estimated to cost up to $5000. So far, the Brusaws have been building these panels by hand. Mass production of the panels, therefore, would be extremely expensive. Scott Brusaw has yet to release just how expensive the project would be.
Some critics wonder why solar panels should be placed on the road, rather than easier, safer places such as roofs, sidewalks, etc. The roof, for example, would have less shadow. Shadows pose another question. According to an article in the magazine Renewable International, even a small amount of shade on one solar panel reduces the efficiency of the entire stretch. Cars, trees and surrounding buildings, of course, constantly shadow roads. Critics therefore wonder if the possible inefficiency is worth the cost of mass production.
Another point of criticism comes from the remote aspect of LEDs. The ability to change lane directions to provide for better traffic flow during rush hour, provide road markers and produce advertisements is very beneficial. However, this also provides the opportunity for hacking and even worst-case scenarios of chaos if anyone can change lane patterns.
Despite these possible complications, the potential is extreme. According to Dr. Pradeep Haldar, solar power and photovoltaic expert at Albany’s College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering, “If you just did it for all the roads in New York, that would be enough to power all of the electricity we need in New York State.” Of course, we all want to believe in the possibility of solar-powered roadways. Environmentalists hope that further research and funding will help turn the dream of solar roadways into a carbon footprint reducing reality.