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Solar roadways: Optimizing the use of public space for power generation

Julie and Scott Brusaw, co-inventors and co-founders of Solar Roadways
Julie and Scott Brusaw, co-inventors and co-founders of Solar Roadways
Solar Roadways

An article in The Guardian by Ucilla Wang today describes the initiative by an Idaho couple, Julie and Scott Brusaw, who are developing technology that embeds solar cells into road surfaces. The story emphasizes their products ability to incorporate LEDs for road markings and even for advertising. Let Wang tell that story, as it brings to light something of greater importance.

Roadways and the easement that accompany them are public lands suitable for installing solar panels. The vast public property can be exploited for solar power generation. Today’s use is trivial, as you may have seen simple uses of solar panels to power traffic signals and information signs.

When the nation needs an energy strategy that fully exploits solar power, state and local governments, as well as the federal government need to expand the scope and scale of their thinking to address the greater need and purpose. Stories about entrepreneurs developing interesting technologies, some of which will enable large improvements are interesting. However, missing are the grand strategies and application initiatives that address the central need for renewable energy.

Here is the Solar Roadways website:

“Are solar panel road surfaces the path to the future?

How one company is hoping to lead the way by adapting solar panel technology to create a new road surface

Ucilia Wang

Guardian Professional, Thursday 5 June 2014 02.00 EDT

Solar panel road surfacing: a couple in Idaho is pioneering the technology and has already sold a trial project to a local council. Photograph: solar roadways

Imagine driving your car out of the garage and what you see is not the usual dark grey asphalt but a street of blue-green hexagonal tiles, with lane markings and traffic signs lit up by embedded LED bulbs.

The image might seem surreal, but a couple in Idaho is working on making it a reality. Meet Julie and Scott Brusaw, who eight years ago started a project to build a roadway embedded with solar cells. Several private and public grants later, the Brusaws are now in the middle of a fundraising campaign via Indiegogo to raise money to hire engineers, improve the design and bring Solar Roadways to the marketplace.

The campaign has fascinated the public and is closing in on $2m, after surpassing the initial goal of $1m. "We need to tweak the design and look for a better way to manufacture them," said Scott Brusaw. "We've made the panels by hand."

Solar Roadways, the Brusaws' project, is certainly bold. They are not just proposing to build glass-topped solar panels that are rugged enough to withstand big trucks and heavy traffic and generate electricity for sale; they also envisage charging electric cars, perhaps wirelessly while the cars zoom down the highway. They are putting LED in the panels not only for marking roads but also for displaying advertising, at least for parking lot projects for businesses.

They're even looking at funneling melted snow from the solar panels into an underground storage tank before sending it to a water treatment centre. Snow removal is critical to ensure the solar panels get sun, so the solar panels will be heated to melt the snow. But the melted water could refreeze and push up the panels if it's allowed to pool off the edge of the solar road, so funneling is an option.

Note that all these proposed uses of a solar roadway are also ways for such a project to generate revenues. Figuring out ways to make a solar roadway project economically feasible will be a huge challenge, says Gregory Wilson, director of the National Center for Photovoltaics at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which is part of the US Department of Energy.”

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