Department Of Outlandish Ideas: Build Solar Roadways

If you want to change the world, you have to think big. Say what you want about the feasibility of Scott Brusaw’s idea to replace asphalt roads with miles of solar ribbons that cars and trucks can drive on, it is a very ambitious idea. Brusaw is the co-founder and CEO of Solar Roadways, a bootstrapped startup in Idaho. He is an engineer, and is building prototypes of solar panels that could be used as roads.

Brusaw wants to create solar panels strong enough to support the weight of cars and trucks driving at 80 miles per hour. There is so much road surface in America, that the collected energy could replace other forms of fossil fuel energy, even with really inefficient solar panels. Even better, since roads go to each home and business, the roads themselves would not only collect the energy, but distribute it. The energy wouldn’t power cars themselves, except maybe electric vehicles juicing up at roadside charging stations. LEDs could be built into the roadways and used as signs. The concept is explained in the video below, which is part of a larger film project called YERT (Your Environmental Roadtrip).

The video shows Brusaw building some of these solar road panels in what looks like a garage. The Infrastructurist blog calls the scheme “dubious.” But the big, unanswered question is how much would this cost. It most definitely would cost more than conventional roads, which are under-funded already. But regular roads can’t offset their costs by producing energy (this is all assuming the technology can actually work at scale without too much maintenance). It also most definitely would cost more than plain-vanilla solar panels.

If the idea is “roads that pay for themselves” these cost issues need to be addressed before anyone will take this concept seriously. It is not clear why paving the country’s roads with glass is a better energy solution than simply setting up solar energy farms which connect to the existing energy grid. I’d really like to see what the proposed cost of these roadways would be and what the payback period would be in terms of energy produced.

The other question this raises is what would be the lifespan of these roadways compared to regular asphalt. And how often would the panels need to be replaced simply to take advantage of improving solar technology and better solar panels. Will we have to upgrade our roads every two years, and who is going to pay for that? Still, I like the fact that Brusaw is swinging for the fences and actually trying to build prototypes.

Update: Brusaw answers with some numbers. “We’re still in the prototyping stages,” he says Brusaw, “so we haven’t manufactured anything yet. Our target price is $10K per panel.” Each panel is 12′ X 12′, so it would take 440 panels for each mile of single-lane road. That is $4.4 million per mile, which he figures will produce enough electricity (7600 watt-hours per day) to power 428 homes. He thinks the payback period would be 20 years, and would drop significantly with manufacturing scale.

(Hat tip to Jon Steinberg).