New Energy Economy

06.03.14

Pave the Roads With Solar Panels?

A startup turns to the public for help to turn the ground into a source of power.
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In America, immigrants used to say, the streets are paved with gold. But what if roads were paved with. . . electricity?

That’s the question Scott and Julie Brusaw began asking several years ago. And that’s the idea behind their start-up, Solar Roadways.

The idea is at once simple and completely out of the box. Surfaces exposed to the sun can generate electricity. Typically, solar panels need an open, unshaded area—like rooftops or open fields. In the southwest and California, after all, it’s not uncommon to see parking lots fitted with canopies that generate electricity.

But what if the parking lot itself could do the generating? Instead of laying down concrete and asphalt on the ground, the Brusaws hit upon the idea of using pavers. But instead of being constructed from granite, marble, or other stone, they’d be made out of a highly durable glass that would house solar cells and circuit boards. In effect, the paving “stones” would be electricity-generating solar panels. It would save a lot of money—roads would essentially pay for their own construction and maintenance by generating energy. And it could help contribute to a new energy future.  Solar Roadways says “a nationwide system could produce more clean renewable energy than a country uses as a whole.”

Scott Brusaw had been noodling with the idea since he was a kid. After serving in the Marines and working in oil exploration, he went to college and became an electrical engineer and inveterate tinkerer. Julie is a licensed counselor and family therapist. The couple founded Solar Roadways several years ago in Sandpoint, Idaho to try to bring this concept to fruition.

As is often the case, the government stepped in early to encourage the development of a new technology. In 2009, the Federal Highway Administration (FHA) awarded Solar Roadways a contract to construct a prototype. The Brusaws developed their first 12'x12’ panel in February 2010. The world began to notice. In 2010, the company won a $50,000 award as part of General Electric’s Ecomagination Challenge. Next, the FHA followed up with a two-year contract worth $750,000 that would allow the Brusaws to test their theory on a larger surface—a prototype parking lot. In March, Solar Roadways began releasing photos of the installed prototype.

Now the company is turning to the public for help. In late April, it started a campaign on crowdsourcing platform Indiegogo, with the intent of raising $1 million by June 20. The funds would be used for production. And the public has responded. With 22 days left, Solar Roadways has already raised $1.64 million, easily surpassing its $1 million goal.

Part of the appeal is that the Brusaws are fundamentally reimagining a commonplace thing that has been around in its current form forever. Roads are largely passive. They sit there and endure punishment so that people, vehicles, and goods can get to where they want. Solar Roadways is aiming to them into active, living organisms. And the capacity to generate electricity is only the beginning.

The Brusaws envision placing heating elements inside the panels, so that the energy captured could be harnessed to melt snow and ice. Light Emitting Diodes embedded in the panels could be programmed to light up with decorations, or with messages. Driveways paved with these panels could function as charging stations—for everything from a laptop to an electric car. The panel systems have conduits underneath them, which house the wires that transmit the electricity generated. But the cable corridors build into the panels could also house fiber-optic cable that transmit data. What’s more, they’ve left space in those corridors for systems that can store and remove storm water.

The effort may seem like a far-fetched longshot. Their panels offer far more than most people expect from their roads. And the financial, technological, and logistical barriers are significant. Still, just as a voyage of a thousand miles starts with a single step, the path to a world of smart, energy-generating roads begins with a single panel.