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Energy & Sustainability

Weekly Trend: R&D Needed Before ‘Solar Roadways’ Hit Highways

“Solar freakin’ roadways” is a six-plus minute video: Part futuristic idea with a lot of silliness, it is worth the watch. Since it was released in May of 2014, it has been viewed over 19 million times as of this writing.

Why? Possibly because the core idea presented in the video is revolutionary in its simplicity: If the sun is giving the earth power and the earth just absorbs it and lets most of it go to waste as radiant heat, why not figure out a way to harness that power? Considering that the earth is covered in roadways—whose pavement and asphalt bits need to be constantly replaced—a solar-powered alternative is not just an elegant solution, but it also makes sense.

But are solar roadways a possibility? In the 2014 Indiegogo petition from Scott and Julie Brusaw, the videos and their FAQ offer compelling explanations for why these hardy solar panels, strong enough to withstand the wear and tear of cars and trucks, are the future. Their company, Solar Roadways, has been working on developing a concept of solar panels to pave roadways since 2006. The panels absorb sunlight and work in quasi-miraculous ways: They can reconfigure parking lots thanks to built-in, sun-powered LED lights, and they can keep the ground a few degrees above freezing, so salting and plowing the roadways becomes unnecessary.

The Brusaws toiled in relative obscurity until a tweet from George Takei, hoping that this smart idea could come closer to reality, turned their Indiegogo page and the video into viral gold—about $2 million worth. Then, their ideas and work gained the government’s attention, and the Federal Highway Administration granted the Brusaws $75,000 to build a small roadway prototype in their hometown of Sandpoint, ID. Over the years, they have received close to $1 million in grants from the Department of Transportation, and they have built a parking lot to test the pavers, with more places in the works to collect data.

With all the attention and the excitement surrounding these panels, others have started to develop similar technologies as well. In November 2014, the people of Amsterdam inaugurated a 76-yard stretch of bike roadway paved with photovoltaic tiles designed and installed by Dutch company SolaRoad. This road, which will undergo considerably less stress than an actual highway, will be a good test of how this kind of paving material performs.

Still, the Dutch roadway proves that we all can dream of the day when salt and snowplows won’t be part of our winter commutes. Of course, the hardiness of the tiles is among the main limiting factors—as well as overall cost—so there’s still some R&D required. Designing rugged and sustainable photovoltaic cell pavers that can collect enough sunlight despite the inherent dirt to be found in a road, and the inability to tilt at an angle for maximum sun collection is expensive and challenging—and a concept that could bring about more problems than it solves.

Maria Helena Carey

Maria Helena Carey is a freelance writer, photojournalist and blogger in Washington, D.C.