Solar Roadway Detour

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As Solar Roadways dominate the solar news, we weigh in with our own perspective and review some of the concerns that have surfaced. Are Solar Roadways feasible? That question may not have a simple answer.

Are Solar ‘Freakin’ Roadways a great idea or a freakin’ waste of money? Proponents dream of LED laced highways and have donated over $1.5 million toward developing this idea. Opponents say that the idea is technologically impossible and a waste of developmental dollars.

We say, go for it — but let’s also focus on building out our market-ready solar panel installations now. Solar technology, in its current state of development, is ready to be reliably installed throughout the U.S. Yes, soft costs are too high. Yes, the grid and interconnection policies need to be upgraded. But the technology is ready, with warranties that are more than three times as long as payback periods. So, let’s not get sidetracked.

Both the U.S. government and the American public seem fixated on the next big invention. Everyone wants a genius scientist to develop a solution for cheap and endless energy. In addition, we demand that this energy be cheaper than fossil fuel — an energy source that has been the focus of energy innovation for over half a century, and also benefits from government subsidization of external costs, including the price of U.S. military operations in the Middle East or repairing the environmental damage from oil spills.

Captain Ahab’s fervor to capture Moby Dick had nothing on our pursuit of the next big energy idea. But to anyone who ever followed a dream, it is one of the best things about being human

The U.S. is one of the best places to follow big dreams. Many Americans will pat you on the back for trying your best and swimming against the school. So with a hearty American spirit: Nice job to the Brusaw family, creators of the Solar Roadway. 

As swimming against the school is challenging, there has been significant exchange between opponents and proponents of the solar roadway concept. The criticism is condescending (although often compelling), with sensationalist examples of why Solar Roadways will not work. The Brusaw family has responded passionately, but they do not entirely assuage the four main technical concerns:

1. Economics

Although I disagree with the dominant viewpoint that the economy takes priority over the environment, until I come up with a better measuring stick and convince people of it, let us consider:

  • Capex: The cost of materials and installation of the solar roadways seems to be astronomical: Materials, microinverters, site preparation, trenching, cabling. Solar Roadways is working to reduce this, but it is yet to be seen how low they can go.
  • Opex: Solar Roadways will add significant complication to the network of roadways. Although they hope to simplify some aspects of current operations, thus counting the savings as a benefit on their financial forecast, intuitively Solar Roadways fly in the face of the famous acronym KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid).

2. Safety

Clearly, this is of the most pressing concerns. Let’s assume that safety will be properly addressed as the product develops in both the short and long term.

In addition to physical safety issues, with “cyber-terrorism” being a growing concern, skeptics are … well, skeptical about the cyber safety of the Solar Roadway.

3. Durability

Directly linked to Opex, the durability can only be tested over time. Challenges still seem to be the differential loading of tiles over time, and their propensity to loosen under heavy and/or high-speed traffic. Extreme soiling should also not be ignored. 

4. Bells and Whistles

Sadly, it is probably the bells and whistles that got Solar Roadways their Indigogo funding. As soon as they said the “LEDs will make the road look like freakin’ Tron,” half of the viewers reached for their check books. When they said that the LEDs will save animals’ lives, the other half of the viewers went for their checkbook. Don’t get me wrong. I like forest animals, and the original Tron was cool at the time — but the LEDs will add significant challenge and cost.

Heating the road to melt snow with fossil fuel power from the electric grid is almost as misdirected as using propane space heaters outdoors. 

The road ahead 

Many of these concerns would be moot if Solar Roadways had not painted such an expansive vision to cover all the roadways in the lower 48 states. But then if the campaign video were about “solar freakin’ residential streets” they would not have been able to excite people to the quantity of $1.5 million.

To the critics: Let’s see where this goes. You bring up strong points.

To the Brusaws: Good luck and good for you for hanging it out there. Try to take the criticism constructively.

To parking lot owners: Consider putting in a solar-powered shade structure now. It’s simple, it’s proven, and the leather in your Mercedes will thank you.

To government officials: Please do not mistake the R&D funding of Solar Roadways for the needed support of an expansive renewable energy rollout.