Solar road panels could remove need for painted markings

2nd November 2016
Alice Matthews

The future of technology promises to utilise more green energy and fewer resources that depend on coal and electricity for their source of power. If the dreams of today's leading innovators came true, the very way that people live their everyday lives could become more eco-friendly.

Author: David Moss

The dream of one technological innovator, Scott Brusaw, arguably is one step ahead in becoming a reality thanks to the recent unveiling of the country's first public solar energy tiles in Sandpoint, Idaho. These solar tiles, which were unveiled as part of a test, were introduced with a slight delay. Instead of the full number being made available, just 30 solar panels were unveiled.

Each one of these hexagon-shaped panels measures 4.39ft2 (1.33m2) and weighs an impressive 70lb (31.8kg). They are capable of generating enough energy to power the fountain and restrooms in a public square. They also absorb enough of the sun's power to stay functional and warm in the wintertime.

Moreover, each panel has its own microprocessor, giving it an intelligence that allows it to communicate with other solar panels. The microprocessors in the panels also allow them to communicate with a central controlling station as well as vehicles to which they are paired.

If utilised in the way imagined by their inventor, these panels will have the capability of illuminating traffic lanes without the need for painted lines or caution messages. They also should be able to melt snow and ice in the winter. If outfitted with coils, these panels could even be used to power electric cars.

So who is the person behind the promise, power, and installation of these solar panels? In 2006 Scott Brusaw initiated what he dubbed as the Solar Roadways project. Three years later, the US Department of Energy gave him a $100,000 contract. In 2014, Brusaw and his wife Julie were invited to the White House to talk more about their project. So impressed was the public with the Solar Roadway project that its Indiegogo crowdfundraising effort quickly raised more than $2m.

As impressed as the public was with the idea of roadways powered by solar panels, the concept already has come to fruition in Europe, most notably in countries like the Netherlands, Germany, and France. In fact, France announced in 2014 its plans to build many solar panel roads during the next five years. Germany likewise plans to implement solar panels in its roads soon, and the Netherlands famously built the world's first solar panel path that generates enough energy to power three separate households.

Solar panel history and possible role in the future
Since he was a child, Brusaw envisioned roads being made out of solar panels. His wife Julie asked him if this vision could ever be made into a reality. At first, he dismissed the idea because he did not think that the panels could support the weight of pedestrians let alone a vehicle. However, the more he thought about it, the more he realised that his vision could come to life if the panels were first encased in a sturdy material before they were laid in the roadway. This realisation helped him launch his Solar Roadways project.

As of right now, work continues on creating a way to encase and use the solar panels in an effective and practical way. This trial and error process even includes advance loading on the test panels that will mimic 15 years' worth of truck abuse using a weighted truck tire.

As Brusaw observed: “Our plan is to replace all asphalt and concrete. If they replaced all the highways in the lower 48 states with solar panels of the same surface area then we'd get about 14 billion kilowatt hours of electricity.” In fact, that figure translates into three times the energy that the US uses each year and about equal to what the world as a whole uses on a yearly basis. The company also has other solar panel roadway projects underway in Baltimore, and at a rest area along Route 66.

Criticism of solar roadways project
Nonetheless, the project does draw its share of questions and criticism from skeptics. Brusaw points out that each handmade panel will cost $10,000 to make and last for 20 years. Despite Brusaw saying that the project would pay for itself, critics argue that it is too cost prohibitive to become a reality.

Further, critics say that it would be impossible for cities to tear up their current concrete and asphalt infrastructures and lay solar panel roads. This would be far too expensive, and the public would be too inconvenienced while the solar panels roads were created.

Similarly, critics say that these roads would create an unnecessary hazard. Despite the promise of the LED-powered solar panels generating power for nearby homes and businesses, they would lack the traction found with concrete and asphalt, raising the risk of problems with handling, and frequent traffic accidents. Their very makeup is also challenging to maintain.

Finally, the question of how to get the power from remote roadways to the grid remains partially unanswered. Furtermore, while conventional rooftop solar panels are angled toward the sun to increase their efficiency, solar road panels are placed flat on the ground, and frequently covered with road dust and continuous traffic. These factors ultimately reduce their solar output and efficiency.

The Solar Roadways project indeed offers a remarkable vision for the future. Nonetheless, many questions exist about its cost, efficiency, and the safety of driving on glass solar panels. Their application, as it seems, is best used on a smaller scale - most notably for walkways, sidewalks, and paring lots that experience lower volume traffic and have fewer safety considerations.

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