June 4, 2014 2:39 pm
Updated: June 5, 2014 3:46 pm

Couple crowdfunds almost $2M for solar road project – but is it viable?

WATCH ABOVE: Solar Roadways Indiegogo video

TORONTO – “Solar panels that you can drive, park, and walk on. They melt snow and… cut greenhouse gases by 75-percent?!!!”

Sounds like a pitch for a late-night miracle product, doesn’t it?

With the talk of climate change and pollution and how much energy we’re all sucking up (particularly in the western world), it would be nice to have a source of clean energy, say, solar energy.

Story continues below
Global News

READ MORE: University professor wins national award for solar energy research

And we do.

But Scott and Julie Brusaw of Idaho seem to think that they have a better means of collecting it, other than from rooftops.

This couple (Scott is an electrical engineer) envisions a day when roads aren’t paved in gold, but rather solar panels. And it sounds like a great idea: textured glass panels covering solar cells that will collect energy and distribute it to a power grid, providing clean, renewable energy that could, the creators say, one day even power cars.

The couple have clearly invested a lot of time and energy into their Solar Roadways project, and when you first see it, you might get excited and think that this is the road to the future. Clearly many have, as more than $1.9 million has been raised on their Indiegogo campaign, almost $1 million more than their goal.

But how feasible is this, really?

Let’s look at just three possible issues:

Traction

What they say in their FAQ: “Actually, one of our many technical specs is that it can be textured to the point that it provides at least the traction that current asphalt roads offer — even in the rain. We hesitate to even call it glass, as it is far from a traditional window pane, but glass is what it is, so glass is what we must call it.”

The reality:
The glass they’re using is indeed glass. Sure, it might have some grooves in it, and sure, it may have passed a test with a swinging pendulum (see their video above), but you put a multi-tonne truck on an wet or icy road and you might get something completely different. The truth is, they haven’t actually tried to stop a moving car on the glass as far as their information illustrates.

Susan Tighe, director of the Centre for Pavement and Transportation Technology at the University of Waterloo has studied the feasibility of solar roads. She also examined the Solar Roadways project when it was first started.

“My big concern with it is the surface characteristics,” Tighe told Global News. “If you were driving vehicles on it, can they stop safely and what kind of friction does it supply?”

She said, however, that the idea has merit.

“I think it’s cool. I think we may see it in the longer term…and I think this could develop into a niche market. I can see people using it on their driveways, potentially…But I don’t think it’s got full-scale potential.”

There is also the issues of glass erosion. After all the dirt and oil and whatever else is on our roadways accumulates and rubs and grinds, that textured surface is unlikely to be textured for very long. And when that happens, is the glass going to be replaced? What would be the cost of that?

Though Tighe said that, on the plus side, road repairs may be shorter: instead of digging up a road, maintenance would just have to pull up one of the modules and replace it.

Solar energy is becoming more popular, but is having it on our roads a good idea?

AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File

To look at the cost of roads as they are now, in April, the City of Toronto budgeted $215 million on roadwork for the summer. That’s just one city fixing roads that use asphalt, which is recycled and has no high-tech wiring or embedded gadgetry.

Light pollution

What they say in their FAQ: “We want to do everything we can to minimize light pollution. The LEDs can be dimmed or even turned off if no vehicles are on the road. We envision activating the LEDs 1/2 mile ahead and 1/4 mile behind a vehicle. If you were to see the adjacent lane lighting up, then you’d know an oncoming vehicle is 1/2 mile ahead.”

The reality:
Scott Kardell, the acting executive director of the International Dark-Sky Association told Global News that there is some concern for a project that intends to light up roadways with upwards-facing LED lights.

“We’re certainly in favour of renewable energy and solar,” he said. “But the idea of putting embedded LEDs, upward pointing, in the roadways everywhere is a little…concerning.”

Not only would there be concern over general light pollution and further loss of the night sky, but there would be environmental concerns as well: insects are drawn to lights, and there is wildlife, such as night-flying birds, that would be drawn to areas where there are more insects, ie. the solar roadway. The lit-up roadways could become a danger to those birds seeking to feed, not to mention motorists.

This map illustrates the light pollution across Earth.

Data courtesy Marc Imhoff of NASA GSFC and Christopher Elvidge of NOAA NGDC. Image by Craig Mayhew and Robert Simmon, NASA GSFC

READ MORE: Saving the night — Light pollution a serious concern for human health and wildlife

“From a strictly environmental perspective, there are some serious concerns about that,” Kardell said. “Of course, from a night-sky perspective that’s obviously something that we’re concerned about.”

Delivery of energy

What they say: “Most energy systems are centralized, meaning they provide power from a central location and send it out via transmission lines over long distance, which leads to substantial loss… Excess power produced by our system can feed surrounding neighbourhoods… It also means smaller cables are required, saving materials and therefore costs. In our system, the power is produced right at the point of use.”

The reality:
Getting the energy to where it needs to go is tricky. Any energy that you collect you have to be able to distribute. Though the creators of Solar Roadways say that we would be using most of it in our homes, there will be excess that would need to be stored, which then requires batteries.

“There are a lot of downfalls to deploying this on any large scale,” Joan Haysom, a senior research scientist at SUNLab at the University of Ottawa told Global News. “To really implement it has all kinds of logistical, mechanical, cost issues associated with it. But,” she added, “it’s an innovative idea, that I wouldn’t want to put down. There could be some niche applications where something like that is fun and can make sense.”

Haysom also pointed out that the energy collected would be in DC which then has to be converted to AC electricity, which is what we use in our homes and businesses. Then there’s the efficiency issue.

“You’re not able to make the most efficient system possible, because you’re putting a thick layer of glass that has to have some sort of traction on it, and then you’re exposing it to gravel and oil and dust and cars that are all going to reduce the light that gets to the solar panel.”

Haysom said that using renewable energy is something we’re able to do now, and not necessarily in a massive undertaking like the Solar Roadways project.

“If you want to talk clean, affordable energy, there are lots of solutions that are already viable today.”

Other questions

So there are just three points. There are plenty of other questions raised such as, what would be the cost of the glass that will cover 6.4 million kilometres of road across the entire U.S., let alone the cost associated with the electronics and solar cells within each one? Also, why would you use solar cells in parking lots…where cars would be covering the panels?

It’s definitely an innovative idea that has a lot of potential. But perhaps not in its current form. Though as of June 4 their Indiegogo campaign had already reached $1,930,902, looking at the costs that will likely be associated with such a massive undertaking, that seems like a drop in the bucket.

Global News contacted the inventors but did not receive a response by the time of publishing.

For a fun look at other issues this project may face, you can watch this video here:

WATCH: Solar Freakin Roadways, are they real?

© Shaw Media, 2014

Report an error

Comments