The Future is Now: Solar Freakin’ Roadways!

2014-05-23 Solar Roadways

This is without doubt the most exciting kickstarter-style project I have ever in my life seen. The concept is simple, but the results are far-reaching and profound. Ready for the concept? Here it is: build all of our roads out of interlocking hexagonal solar panels. Hey look, there’s a video!

So there’s a little more to it than that, obviously. First: yes, the panels are strong enough for use as roadways. Second: they generate a lot of power. The estimate in the video is that they could generate 3x our entire national energy usage. Third: they are more than just solar panels. They also include heating elements to keep roadways clear during winter, LED panels for safety (and fun, when used on playgrounds or driveways, etc.), and come with conduits designed to allow buried power and telecommunications cable on one hand, and handle water run-off on the other.

One thing the video doesn’t mention, that it should, is the possibility of using these roadways to make self-driving cars infinitely easier and safer. The historical debate for self-driving cars has always been smart roads vs. smart cars. Smart roads are a lot easier in terms of technology, but require vast investment. But if we’re replacing all our roads anyway, then there’s no reason not to network them and make the network available to your smart car. Then you’d get an exact, real-time map of all the roads that would take some of the strain off of smart cars. (They would still need to be smart, but now you’ve got redundancy and have made their job easier.)

Obviously there are concerns. The issue of cost is not fully addressed. Neither is the issue of maintenance. There are a lot caveats and exceptions to consider, such as handling bridges and tunnels. Some parts are just not necessarily going to work that well. Replacing pained lane-markers with LEDs sounds awesome… but will they be readily visible in the middle of the day? And generating 3x the required power supply is great… except that it’s all generated during the day. The same issue that has always plagued solar power still applies: storage. Then there are the political considerations. Are global power suppliers (everything from nuclear to fossil fuels to other alternatives) going to just twiddle their thumbs while their market literally disappears? And generating enough power for all our cars to run off of the electricity from the roadways is great, but we’d actually need to all transition to electric cars first, which means phasing out hundreds of millions of cars currently in existence.

AND YET! And yet this idea, over the long run, feels like it has the potential to really change our world in a fundamental way for the better. It’s the kind of technological advance that I can see people taking for granted in the future, never realizing how much immeasurably better everyone’s lives have become by something that would be taken for granted not long after being implemented precisely because of how much everyone would depend on it every day. For me, it seems like it would be up there with, I don’t know, running water or electricity, or the interstate highway system. The kinds of things we don’t really appreciate, even though they define our modern world.

Maybe the current iteration of the tech doesn’t address all these problems, but I can’t help but feel that we’re close.1 And that this would be the kind of massive public project that I would love, love to support even as a conservative. Go support the IndieGoGo campaign now!

EDIT: The campaign has 8 days left. They  have raised over $400,000, but their goal is $1,000,000. The money will be used for moving from prototype to production, primarily by hiring additional engineers. I think it’s a worthy cause, but I’d like to know more about the short-term business model. Seems like selling to early-adopters who want to use the material to pave their driveways would be awesome, then moving up to commercial installations as parking lots to improve / prove the technology works. Replacing our national roadway system seems like the final phase, not the next step.

5 thoughts on “The Future is Now: Solar Freakin’ Roadways!”

  1. I read the kickstarter info a couple of weeks ago and was very impressed by the design and functionality. My two main concerns had to do with maintenance and accidents, actually. These may have been on my mind due to a recent incident that left me squished between two cars and debris all over the road . . .
    How will they keep the electric/computerized parts clean? Grit, grime, gravel, broken glass . . . how will the seals between the panels keep debris out? Gravel doesn’t travel the way water flows. Like my rhyme? =) j/k
    I live in a family that has an “electronics curse”. It doesn’t seem to matter how gentle we are, things break. How easy and/or time consuming/cost prohibitive will it be to replace panels as they wear n’ tear?
    Then lastly, again related to the recent sandwiching of my car: what is the traction like on this glass? When I think of glass I think of something inherently slippery and difficult to stop on. I’d love to see video that shows a car breaking suddenly on this surface when it’s wet.
    I do love love love the idea and I think you’re right: start small, then use US roadways as the end result. Marketing this to home builders or commercial real-estate developers should be fairly easy since installation would be “new” rather than “replacement”. Thanks for sharing this so I could view it again.

  2. This idea is so inherently dumb. It’s been driving me nuts seeing it posted the last few days.

    Taking something inherently fragile and expensive (a solar panel) then drive cars over it. Toughen it up with thick glass on top! Now it’s even more expensive, and will become less energy-efficient as the glass gets scratched.
    Winter. Ice between panels is going to crack those things up, and snowplows will do the rest. But they have heating elements so ice won’t be a problem! Ok, where does the energy to produce that heat come from? Even if the panel is 100% efficient, there isn’t enough solar energy to melt the ice because if there was, THE ICE WOULD HAVE ALREADY MELTED. So now it requires external power to melt the ice, defeating the purpose of solar panels. There’s been discussion of defeating this limit by storing heated fluid during warm times to thaw the glass later. If this magic super-efficient-thermos exists, why don’t modern luxury cars use it to obsolesce the ice scraper? Why does any house have an electric water heater?

    Bottom line: Almost nowhere in the world is there a shortage of both roof space and open space, ideal places to put solar panels that don’t need gorilla glass coatings. Even these cheap panels require subsidies to be economical. The smart-road glitz of this idea is blinding people to the fundamental thermodynamic, mechanical, and financial reasons why this isn’t going to work.

    But is IS freakin’ cool.

  3. Even if the panel is 100% efficient, there isn’t enough solar energy to melt the ice because if there was, THE ICE WOULD HAVE ALREADY MELTED.

    Physics is not my thing, but I’m not tracking the logic on that one. A lot of the solar energy that hits a normal roadway is reflected, right? So only a fraction of that energy is absorbed as heat. Isn’t it theoretically possible, then, to capture more energy using the solar panels?

    In any case, however, it doesn’t seem like a dealbreaker. If the roadways in Maine are a net energy drain, that doesn’t mean the whole system is a net drain because you’ve got all the roadways in Arizona that are continuing to draw in energy year-round. It’s just a question of moving energy around, which fits because the roads are, themselves, wired.

    Bottom line: Almost nowhere in the world is there a shortage of both roof space and open space, ideal places to put solar panels that don’t need gorilla glass coatings.

    That’s true, but energy is only one of the benefits. What about the increased safety of being able to dynamically sense road conditions and relay warnings? What about the potential of bringing about self-driving cars faster, cheaper, and more safely? What about the benefits of burying a large quantity of the telecom and power infrastructure? That’s not free, no, but the marginal cost is vastly lower if we’re relaying our entire road infrastructure anyway. Those lines follow roads (most of the time) for a reason.

    To me the biggest concerns you raised are the lose of efficiency from the glass becoming weathered and the potential for damage. Those could, very well, be deal breakers. But I don’t think the idea qualifies as stupid once other considerations are added along with just harvesting solar power.

  4. There are benefits and I think these can have limited use, but I also think additional testing should be done before they are put ‘everywhere’. I love the idea and think we should definitely look into doing something with the amount of pavement we have.

    This is a great idea, tweak it a little and start replacing various parts of roads over time.

    When an accident occurs, on occasion even the tires of the vehicle can tear up asphalt, so it’s likely if the grip on these is done well enough it would do the same. Then the person responsible for the accident gets to add the cost of each panel to their bill. Or would everyone just pay a minimal amount each month/year for upkeep and replacement as a shared effort?

    It is a great idea and eventually it has great capabilities. I think it just needs to be done slowly over time. Also note that further north where you have white nights, it could make impressive impacts.

    I hadn’t even thought of helping smart cars, but also keep in mind if we have that setup the data becomes meta data and you would lose some privacy over it. There’s no way a network that spans all the roads in the country would be difficult to hack, either remotely or physically. Still, I’d love to be able to get in my car and input a location, sit back and read a book or get work done.

  5. A lot of the solar energy that hits a normal roadway is reflected, right? So only a fraction of that energy is absorbed as heat. Isn’t it theoretically possible, then, to capture more energy using the solar panels?

    Googling indicates asphalt reflects 5-15% of incident energy as light. I imagine blacktop reflects less. The rest is absorbed as heat. (That’s why roads get hot in the sun instead of blinding you.) So, not a lot more energy to work with. The deicing benefit would probably be small, leading to damage from ice and plows eventually.

    It’s just a question of moving energy around, which fits because the roads are, themselves, wired.

    High voltage transmission lines would be needed to efficiently move energy from Arizona to Maine, and high voltage transmission lines are put on tall towers far from people because they are dangerous and carcinogenic at close distances.

    What about the benefits of burying a large quantity of the telecom and power infrastructure?

    I would not be happy with the telecom guys needing to block the lane completely when doing work on wires. On the other hand, wires would break less if they weren’t hanging up in the air.

    What about the increased safety of being able to dynamically sense road conditions and relay warnings?

    Most GPS units already know about traffic jams. More granular information would be useful for safety but probably wouldn’t help pay for the system.

    What about the potential of bringing about self-driving cars faster, cheaper, and more safely?

    I think the installation costs would wildly outweigh the “cheaper” factor, but the rest would indeed be rad.

    I’m glad people are pursuing pie in the sky ideas like this. Even stupid ideas often lead to useful innovations.

    I also think it’s funny that a month or so ago, solar panels were installed on the White House for the first time … since the Carter administration. I don’t expect solar tech to take big leaps forward anytime soon.

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