Scott and Julie Brusaw of Idaho came up with the brilliant idea of embedding solar cells into roadways. Even with the meager conversion rates of today’s solar cells and even in the more Northern regions where the incident solar angle limits the amount of usable energy received, in this usage photocells are cost effective and capable of generating more power than we use, assuming the majority of roads were paved with these. This is one of those ideas that is so good and in retrospect so obvious that you have to wonder why nobody thought of it before. Then if you look closer and discover that Scott and Julie have been working on this for over a decade you might wonder how it’s been around so long and you are still driving over potholes where asphalt used to be. That’s a really good question. I believe we can help them resolve that one last issue by kicking in a few dollars to their Indiegogo campaign and this post is to help explain why it’s important to do this with private funding.
The theory and technology behind Solar Roadways is sound. Much of the innovation that was outstanding when Scott and Julie first started on the project has been delivered. They have a working installation in a parking lot in Idaho today. But testing and certification remain outstanding, as well as completion of real-world pilot tests in public places and scaling up the manufacturing process. When I discuss the project with others, some express reluctance because solar power generation in general is considered to be too inefficient to be cost effective with today’s technology. Bear with me because I want to tackle that one first. Hopefully I’ll be able to convince even die-hard skeptics that the numbers work.
The business case
That main reason solar cells are hard to justify on a cost basis is that most applications use them strictly to generate power. In that context the energy conversion rate is the main factor to determine return on investment and solar cells are not yet very efficient. But you get a much higher return on investment when the solar power is part of a larger technology package purpose-built to solve inefficiencies and limitations in an existing system. Today’s road technology has more inefficiencies than it has potholes and because roads are ubiquitous those inefficiencies represent an enormous untapped reservoir of cost recovery.
So if you are calculating a business case, start with ROI of a solar cell used strictly for power generation. Now add back in…
- Don’t need snow plows
- Don’t need salt and slag
- Don’t need lane striping paint
- Don’t need overhead wiring infrastructure
- Don’t need massive tracts of land for solar farms
- Don’t need new fossil or nuclear power plants
- Fewer overhead lights required
- Modular road repair
- Smart modules signal for replacement prior to failure
- Paver modules are incrementally upgradeable to new technology
- Integrated fiber and cable corridors
- Integrated subsurface cell towers
- Capture and treat/recycle vehicle waste (oil, gas, rubber) at the source
- Lanes dynamically reconfigure (i.e. near the stadium or for evacuation)
- Road detects hazards (blown retread) and guides traffic around them
- Dynamic signage embedded in the road
- Road that charges electric vehicles using induction and while they drive
- Smart parking lots that lead you to an open space
- Traffic control sensors that can detect a motorcycle or scooter and cycle the light
- Visual cues guide slower drivers out of the fast lanes
- Moving traffic pacing beacons on roads and on-ramps
- Precise emergency responder information
- Visual indicator replaces flares for accidents
- Visual indicator of emergency vehicles approaching
- Visual indicator of drunk oncoming driver entering freeway on wrong ramp
Are you starting to get the picture?
And if that doesn’t motivate you, when was the last time you saw an asshole with a new sports car to take up two or four spots in the parking lot? Do you want a parking lot that re-stripes itself around that car to box it in? I know I do, and I will personally write the code to enable the parking lot to do that if given the opportunity.
In short, the ROI on solar is already good enough to justify large farms and solar-topped parking structures so it’s a short hop from there to a slam-dunk business case when the solar cell is delivered in a form factor that addresses many of our paving issues and at the same time enables the roads themselves to become smart and dynamically reconfigurable.
Why private funding is needed
According to their campaign, Solar Roadways is seeking private funding so that they can remain independent and true to their vision while they scale up the manufacturing process to bring smart their product to market. Do you want to wait and hope they get a government research grant? Or would you rather a hundred thousand of us kicked in a few dollars each and ensured the needed funding?
But I have my own theory. Nearly all the world’s power today is liberated from some physical substance. Oil, coal, natural gas, plutonium, all of these have mass and substance. That means they must be transported from their source to the electricity generation plant. Whoever controls the mining and transport of those substances becomes a very powerful geopolitical player.
As a thought experiment, imagine the effect on global power alliances if fossil fuels and nuclear power were made obsolete. Here in the US we don’t like to be dependent on foreign oil and are so desperate to free ourselves that we are willfully turning a blind eye as new mining technologies suck up all reservoirs of potable water and leave poisons in its place. We have communities in which you can light the water on fire as it comes out of the tap. But even as we are busy wriggling out from under the OPEC thumb, we are not shy about flexing military muscle to control the transport of fossil fuel once it’s out of the ground. In a world of solar power generated near the point of use, fossil fuels and their transport become irrelevant.
First-world powers have a natural disincentive to bring cost-effective solar to market. The technology cannot be widely deployed and still kept secret since, by definition, it must be exposed to the sun and therefore to satellite reconnaissance. But if it took off around the globe, it would change the balance of power. Yes it’s somewhat predictable and yes there’s undoubtedly a plan for that. But the unpredictability is sufficiently high that it’s a national security issue. If you are a real tin-foil hat type you might even come to believe that the US government won’t let a good solar technology come to market. In the realm of conspiracy theories it’s a lot more plausible than the one that says a secret cabal of elite scientists are making up global warming at the behest of an even more secret, even more elite cabal of environmentalists.
But I’m not that big a tin-foil hat kind of guy. I believe the US government does have a national security interest but are nonetheless willing to let a really good solar technology come to market. They just won’t help it along. Maybe a little so they can say they support solar. But not enough to actually close the deal. If that were an accurate assessment, you might see projects that look really good and yet struggle along slowly over a decade. Exactly like Solar Roadways has done. If my theory is even partially true, then Solar Roadways will need private funding to get to market.
But let’s say my theory is nothing more than a movie plot and the US government is 100% behind the technology. A massive public response and private sector funding shows the politicians that their constituents care and that backing the project is politically advantageous.
Either way, some private funding at this point helps the project move forward and gets us closer to the day that your own driveway welcomes you home, charges your car and then powers your house while you cook dinner and snuggle up with your loved one for a movie.
So are you ready to help? Funding pledges start at $5. The project could really use your pledge and I’d personally appreciate it since I want to live in a world where this technology is not just possible but has become commonplace.