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Driving to the future on highways made of solar panels

An artist's rendition of a road made of Solar Road Panels.
An artist's rendition of a road made of Solar Road Panels.From Solar Roadways

There are millions of miles of paved road in the United States. From five-lane superhighways to one-lane country roads, we Americans enjoy the privilege of being able to hop in a car and go almost anywhere in the Union. As amazing as that connectivity is, a company called Solar Roadways in Sagle, Idaho has a plan to make the road system even more useful. They want to turn the American road system into a massive, pollution-free source of power that could eliminate the need for power plants forever.

Scott and Julie Brusaw are a husband and wife team who founded Solar Roadways to realize their dream of making the United States an environmentally-benign, energy-independent superpower within our lifetimes. Mrs. Brusaw came up with the idea for a solar panel that could function as a road surface and then she and Mr. Brusaw (an electrical engineer) sat down to figure out the specifics.

Their Solar Road Panel would use ultra-capacitors to store the power it collected during the day, LED lights to display messages or even lane divider lines, heating filaments to eliminate the need to clear snow or ice from it, a networking system to allow it to communicate with and transfer power to or from neighboring Panels, and even the capacity to capture and filter water for transfer to aquifers and agricultural areas.

Setting up a system of these panels to form a four-lane road covering a single mile would generate enough electricity to take 428 homes off the grid. With these panels covering the country’s roadways-- an estimate that assumes 15% efficiency (many photovoltaic cells have 20% or higher) and four hours of peak sunlight a day-- a Solar Roadway system would meet our country’s annual electrical needs three times over.

A Nation Running on Solar Power

The solar roadway system would become a nationwide grid that we could tap into to power our homes and businesses, effectively replacing the various electrical grids we currently use. Power would be stored in the roadway and pumped along it to wherever it was needed, so areas in weak sun or complete darkness would still have all the electricity they need, eliminating the need for power plants.

The transition to a nation of electric cars would no longer be limited by what the power plants could support. Electric car charging stations could be placed at every parking lot and rest stop; drivers could cross the country in battery-powered cars with no worry about being trapped out of range. And all this power would be generated without producing a single puff of carbon dioxide.

As sci-fi as this may sound, everything the Brusaws are proposing can be done using existing technology. Their web site has details about the materials each road panel would need. Some of it-- like a self-cleaning, translucent road surface-- is a little exotic, but all of it exists. Their web site also has numbers to support their claims, how long the roads would last (three times longer than asphalt), how maintenance would be performed, plans for when the road is covered with dust or flooded, and a whole host of other answers to the questions they have received over the years. The Brusaws’ answers convinced the Department of Transportation to enter into a Small Business Innovative Research contract with them so that Solar Roadways could develop a prototype.

First Steps

Mr. Scott used the $100,000 of DoT funding to build a prototype 12x12 foot Solar Road Panel, a 3x3 foot Sidewalk Panel, and a storm water redistribution system. The prototype panels include LED lights, wireless panel-to-panel communication, and all the necessary electronics. The Sidewalk Panel has load sensors in it that detect weight. As a demonstration of capabilities, the Sidewalk Panel will flash when someone steps on it and signal the Road Panel to flash a message of ”SLOW DOWN”, features that would be used when the panels are serving as a crosswalk. Solar Roadway plans to have a video of the demonstration up on their web site in early March.

The Brusaws are hopeful that the success of their prototype will lead to future funding. The next phase of their plan involves commercialization of their technology. They will build a manufacturing plant and plan to cover the parking lot of their facility with their Solar Road Panels, which will serve as a test bed for panel development as well as taking their facility off the grid. They will start selling their Solar Road Panels as soon as they have finalized the design, a move they hope to make within two years.

The Solar Roadway concept has generated a lot of interest. Popular Science and Scientific American, among others, have written about their work, and they’ve even got a few standing orders for their Solar Road Panels, thanks to a news article that mistakenly said they were already laying down roads.

To learn more about Solar Roadways, you can visit their extensive web site, which has tons of information about the technology, more about how their panels could change our way of life, an FAQ, and ways you can help them get the country running on solar power.

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