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Amy Gleich

Amy Gleich

Freelance multimedia journalist. Recent graduate of the Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication's Master's Program.You can follow Amy on Twitter.

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Follow the Yellow (Solar Panel) Road

Follow the Yellow (Solar Panel) Road

It's time for American roads to pull their own weight. Sure, we drive on them every day, enabling us to travel to practically every part of the country -- but is that enough?

What if roads could also collect massive amounts of energy?

That's the idea behind the sun-harvesting technology being proposed by a company called "Solar Roadways." According to the company's YouTube video, it's a technology that replaces all "roadways, parking lots, sidewalks, driveways, tarmacs, bike paths and outdoor recreation surfaces (i.e. basketball courts) with solar panels." The company claims that covering every road in America with these panels would generate three times as much energy as the country uses.

It's a pretty big claim, but one that almost 50,000 people have bought into so far, with $2.2 million of their dollars through the company's crowd-funding Indiegogo page.

Many of their claims seem way too good to be true; listening to the video, you'd think that Solar Roadways’ idea could save the world. But let’s not rush to judgment before considering the scientific facts surrounding what the company calls, "solar freakin' roadways!"

Claim: Solar Roadways' "intelligent" hexagonal panels would be replaced one at a time if damaged or malfunctioning and would put an end to boring, lifeless panels that just "sit there."

Actually, these panels would "just sit there." As climatologist and former NASA scientist Dr. Roy Spencer points out on his blog, "You can’t point the roadway to track the sun, to improve energy generation efficiency."  Many industrial solar panels are designed to move with the sun as it travels through the sky - tilting in the appropriate direction throughout the day. Solar Roadway's panels' inability to tilt would cause them to lose efficiency and value. Free-standing panels are much more mobile, plus, it's a lot easier to mend a broken panel on a rooftop or in a field rather than underneath a busy highway. There's also a reason that highways aren't made out of individual asphalt panels: millions of tires passing over these tiles each day will eventually cause them to come loose.

The revolutionary tempered glass
Photo: Source
Caption: The revolutionary tempered glass. It looks more like a futuristic bath tile to me, but I'm not an expert.

Claim: The panels lie beneath a revolutionary tempered glass material that is covered in small hexagonal nodes that will help with traction, while still allowing sun to penetrate to the collection surface.

Related Article: China Might Be Winning The Race To Reduce Solar Costs

OK, this might just be me, but the hexagonal nodes seem like they'd be really bumpy to drive over. Also, it's hard to understand why placing the panels beneath millions of two-ton vehicles would be preferable to, say, placing them on rooftops. And, as Spencer points out, the panels are going to get filthy, which will cut down on their light-collecting capabilities. How often will these panels have to be cleaned to stay functional?

Claim: The panels will keep themselves a few degrees above freezing, thereby melting snow and eliminating icy roads and the need to ever shovel your driveway again.

I can't see how this would work unless the panels continuously keep themselves above freezing. The minute they're covered in snow, how are they going to collect sunlight? Spencer makes a great point about this claim, as well: " A dark surface [i.e., asphalt] heated by the sun converts essentially all of the absorbed sunlight into heat energy…which is what is needed to melt snow. If you instead siphon off some of the absorbed solar energy in the form of electricity, there is actually LESS heat energy to melt snow!"

Claim: Solar parking lots are a great idea.

In another post, Spencer points out the fact that solar-collecting parking lots aren't a great idea, because the parked cars will actually shade the panels. For my money, I'd rather see shade-producing structures with solar panels on top.

Claim: This would be the end of repainting lane lines because the panels include LED lights that would create the lane lines, parking spaces, warning messages - anything their programmers wanted.

Why stop there? They could entertain commuters stuck in traffic with fun pictures and inspirational messages.

OK, so LED lights would look pretty cool, but as an article in Mother Nature Network points out, operating lights constantly in every parking lot and on every road would definitely add to the cost. Plus, every added complexity also adds another aspect that will need maintenance. Electrical engineer, David Forbes puts it in perspective: "Do you know the only electronic thing that's more expensive per square foot than solar cells? Yup, you guessed it: LED signage."

Claim: "With LED lights everywhere it's going to look like "freakin' Tron out there, but real because it's the real world!"

LED Lighting
Photo: SolarRoadways.com
Caption: OK, it does sort of look like Tron

What? That's some iron clad logic. So, any idea you can imagine can be real, because it's the real world. Don't think about that statement too much -- it will give you a headache. Plus, living in the world of Tron seems more scary than fun.

Related Article: Five Crazy New Forms Of Energy That Just Might Work

Claim: These roads will do more than just collect solar energy; they also have two channels running concurrently alongside: one to house all of the power lines, data lines, fiber optics, and high-speed internet, completely eliminating the need for above-ground lines, and another to collect and transport rainwater and melted snow to processing facilities, "decreasing the amount of pollution that enters our soil, lakes, rivers and oceans." Not to mention, capturing that much more useable water.

I hate looking at power lines as much as anyone else does, but this would be an absolutely monumental undertaking. In the current scope, cost estimates for doing this are about $56 trillion. Not only are we ripping up and replacing every road in America, but we're also going to re-route almost every other utility along with it?

Claim: the panels were invented in 2006 by "engineering couple Julie and Scott Brusaw - two of the sweetest people in the world who met when they were three and four years old."

Co-Inventors Scott and Julie Brusaw on their prototype solar road
Photo: SolarRoadways.com
Caption: Co-Inventors Scott and Julie Brusaw on their prototype solar road

Are you ready to give them your money yet? Actually, she's not an engineer - according to their Indiegogo page, she's a “counselor in private practice.” He is an electrical engineer, but as Spencer says, he "doesn't see how anyone with an engineering background could have seriously entertained the idea."

Mother Nature Network sums it up nicely when they say that the panels will cost "more money, produce less electricity at a higher cost, and introduce major new complexities into an already complex transportation system." If you're still really excited about this idea, here's a great video that breaks down each claim and explains why this futuristic undertaking is much more science fiction than fact.

An equities.com article also cuts to the chase: the Brusaws basically have a really cool hobby that may or may not lead to any type of feasible new technology. The greatest line of the video that perfectly illustrates how vaguely they explain that technology: "Are we being led to believe that this thing is some sort of thing? Yes."

I think that says it all.

By Amy Gleich of Oilprice.com




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  • zipsprite on July 03 2014 said:
    AS Amy says about parking lots, why not cover the roads and put solar panels on that? That really would keep the snow & ice off the roads which is a big savings. With increasing efficiency of solar panels, for some roads in some areas that could actually make sense.
  • Robert Axford on July 03 2014 said:
    Bit too polemical for my taste. Reminds me of Standard Oil New Jersey's comment about the first Fluidised Bed Catalytic Cracker being commissioned by SOHIO : "We will hear the blast where we are on the other side of Lake Michigan when it blows up"

    Clearly the US Department of Transport who have granted $1 million for preliminary development and GE who have given the idea an accolade aren't instantly dismissing the idea.

    Having said that I don't think anyone is going to go in suddenly with many billions of dollars of investment. Further testing and development followed perhaps by niche development. Long term who knows?
  • kevin on July 03 2014 said:
    You forgot to mention the cost of constantly repaving tar roads, which they claim is the first reason they came up with this idea, and the panels would last much longer than tar roads.

    This is more of an experiment to emerge new technologies than the final production implementation. Its an investment to see what can be done to fix the poor infrastructure in the US. Probably we will see some of this technology in the future.
  • michael on July 03 2014 said:
    Programmable roadways would be a cool idea except that Hackers out there will be lining up to mess with traffic as much as possible. I hope lawmakers will make lengthy prison stays mandatory for anyone hacking the system, no matter how young!!
  • Harry on July 04 2014 said:
    I cannot understand why you would criticize this idea and try to discredit it in your article which is almost entirely negative and sarcastic. For every problem you try to point out there is in fact a solution - you just have to think outside the box a little. Yes the idea of changing all our roads is a massive and hugely expensive task but the world is dying. This could save our planet. You should have the vision to see that and be trying to promote any attempt or idea to help. The fact is that if all the roads were changed, first in the states and eventually the entire world, there would be enough power to run the planet and more. We wouldn´t have to continue to destroy the environment to power our greedy lives.
  • Leslie Graham on July 05 2014 said:
    What a patheticaly negative article about what is, at base, a pretty obvious and simple good idea.
    You seem to have gone out of your way to try to find fault with it and you obviously havn't even gone so far as to read their FAQ which easily counters every
    'point' you've made anyway. These are smart people and they have been working on this for a decade.
    You seriously think that they havn't already thought of the 'problems' you mention?!
    Of course there will be problems. This is a prototype and it will be developed and then other companies will copy and improve on the idea same as with every other product that has ever been invented in the history of engineering.
    It will probably start off in the provate driveways of the super-rich and then car parks and then quiet suburban streets to begin with and that's where the problems will be ironed out.
    Remember these are essentialy free as they provide an income stream that willeventualy cover the cost of installation. They are a clearly perfect candidate for mass production and laying and as such the costs will tumble.
    Your negative comments are like saying the Wright Brothers airplane will never work as a global transport system.
    It's easy to sit in your armchair and take cheap shots but these things could be a game-changer and we don't exactly have much choice anyway - we have to find other ways of generating power or our economy and life-style is finished.
    Have YOU got a better idea? Let's hear it.
  • LM on July 06 2014 said:
    Solar is going to reach parity with coal and oil very soon. My guess is sooner than many people think.

    The biggest change in the near term is going to be in the real estate market. That is where you are going to see it first.

    Right all the flat top roofs and parking lots are negative real estate. Corporations pay taxes for the land but they produce no revenue (except if its surface parking). That is about to change.

    Every flat top roof and parking lot is going to be looked at as land that could produce revenue.

    Roofs will be filled with PV Solar Panels and parking lots will be covered where the electricity will either go to the grid, or to the real estate land owner or to charging stations so customers can charge their cars.

    Governments will be forced to change zoning because land will be at a premium and citizens will want to protect green space. They wont want more suburban sprawl with an endless sea of solar PV.

    You'll know the game is changing whem corporate real estate market changes their valuation methodology. Then that is going to be a paradigm shift.
  • Debra Lessard on August 02 2014 said:
    Don't talk about massive undertakings like they are impossible. If it wasn't for Eisenhower we wouldn't have high speed roads or bridges connecting us to each other across the whole United States. We went to the moon in 10 years. Oil and Gas and Coal and chemicals are on there way out. They are dead all ready. They just refuse to believe that they are in a death sprawl. Business as usual is killing every living thing on this planet. These rich fools believe they have money so they can get what they need. Well that will work for a while. But once every waterway on Earth is fouled from inhumane treatment of our planet, there is no water to buy. I would rather see solar panels and wind generators then Oil wells spewing black smoke. See Coal mines Pollute fresh water supplies and the air. Oil too causes Air pollution. Our Oceans are dying from these foolish practices. We don't breath without our Oceans.3 of 4 breaths are made by the Oceans. They make our weather too. It would be one thing if there was no choice. But it is not the case. We have many choices. We must stop these Corporations raping the world for profit. Killing every animal on the planet won't be enough for them. We will all go by the way of the dinosaurs. We won't have lasted nearly as long. People can be so stupid.

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