Solar Roadways - Positive Or Negative?

There are approximately 7 billion people in the world right now and from the moment we’re born each and every one of us has an impact on planet Earth. They say that one of our greatest advances was the discovery of electricity but it has also been one of our greatest downfalls because most of it is generated by burning one of the least sustainable and most toxic resources we have – oil.

Fortunately, some smart scientist discovered that sunlight, which most of us take for granted, is an amazing source of energy. And more sustainable than anything else because it’s always going to be there – well, for the next five billion years or so at least! When solar energy first appeared it was something only the Richie Riches of the world could afford, but these days you get solar powered lights, phone chargers, water heaters and even fridges.

Going solar still isn’t cheap but with a little savvy saving and some coupons from sites like Discountrue, you can convert as much of your home to solar energy as possible. Not only does it save a bundle on utilities, it also gives a warm fuzzy feeling that you’re doing your bit for the environment! Now I don’t know if you’ve seen or heard about the ‘Solar Freakin’ Roadways’ Indiegogo campaign that raised over $2 million but when I saw the video on YouTube I thought it was an awesome idea. But I’m not one to just throw money at something because I think it’s a good idea so I did a little research. And what I found is that while these solar roadways are a working idea, there are some serious challenges that need to be overcome before it can ever be implemented.

Safety

Although Solar Roadways have been tested for wet conditions in a university lab and shown that they can stop a vehicle going at 80 mph within the required distance, there is a big difference between lab approval and federal highway approval. Right now the DOT can’t say whether it would be safe for actual vehicular traffic. Unfortunately, there needs to be more field traffic evaluations done in order to determine if they’re safe – and durable – enough for highways.

Durability

While there is currently a Solar Roadway (a 12×36 foot strip in the inventors backyard), the DOT couldn’t get the fancy equipment they use to test impact loads of up to 16,000 pounds out to the ‘testing headquarters’, so they had to resort to a 3D modeling analysis i.e. a simulation. Apparently they’re driving tractors over the panels on a regular basis but there is a huge difference between a tractor and a caravan of fully loaded 16 wheelers!

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Supply Challenges

Now this part requires a breakdown of the specs for the interlocking hexagonal panels that make up solar roadways.

First off they require tempered, self cleaning glass that can transmit light to underlying PV’s (the photovoltaic cells that turn sunlight into electricity). However, such glass doesn’t exist yet. And the self cleaning part I think is the most important. As a biker I know all about avoiding oil patches that appear after a heavy rain, even where there’s been no accident, but even the smallest oil spill on glass? I don’t know if that can be overcome.

Then there was a circuit board problem. Most companies are trying to go smaller with their circuit boards, but Solar Roadways need 0.4 m2 for each panel and their winning bidder on the project couldn’t supply it. While it’s been overcome by building four panels that are assembled on site, it is something to keep in mind for the future. Large scale automated production could allow for the circuits to be embedded in the glass as originally intended, but that, unfortunately, is still just an idea.

Then there’s the built-in heaters which require more energy than the PV’s can supply. In my opinion, this defeats the whole point of the Solar Roadways!

Costs

Now the Brusaw (the inventors) says that these solar roadways will eventually pay for themselves with the amount of power they’ll generate. But if you consider the fact that they’re essentially electronic devices, then consider how long your average computer or smartphone circuitry actually lasts. The question of maintenance comes up. Road workers would need technical training just to look at them! Most roads are as poorly maintained as possible, would governments really cough up necessary funds to maintain miles of expensive circuitry subjected to some of the worst daily wear and tear there is?

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And now this may seem a little conspiracy theorist like (I blame it on my love for detective/spy novels), but these roadways have circuit boards. That would mean they require programming, which probably means there needs to be a computer connected to the network somewhere. I may be completely off here, but the logic works for me. And if there is a computer – it can be hacked. What would happen if someone decided to have a little malicious fun with peak hour traffic on highways in LA?

Now I’m not against Solar Roadways, in fact I’m all for them. But I think it is going to be some time before they become a viable solution to our energy crisis. The one thing I know is that every major invention has had spin-offs that sometimes changed the world more than the original idea, X-Rays for example. So maybe this idea will lead to something that is not quite as revolutionary but has far more practical applications!

Featured image credit: ShutterStock

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