Solar Roadways is funding – and why you should care

20140508113108-Sandpoint_1Scott 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.

Learn more at the Indiegogo campaign page and if you’d like to help, please consider joining the Solar Roadways Street Team on Facebook.

About T.Rob

Computer security nerd. WebSphere MQ expert. Autist. Advocate. Author. Humanist. Text-based life form. Find me on Facebook, Twitter, G+, or LinkedIn.
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23 Responses to Solar Roadways is funding – and why you should care

  1. Pingback: Solar Roadways | Mr. Multicultural – Τα ταξίδια του μικρού Ηλία

  2. bonniedom says:

    Reblogged this on Brainstorm District and commented:
    After reading this article about Solar Roadways, and having done a hefty amount of research (considering these wee hours in the morning in which I am writing this), Elon Musk came to mind. It seems that if this creation were to take off, Musk’s companies would likely have to rethink some aspects of their current business plans.
    Why? Consider that Solar City is based primarily on putting solar panels on your roofs. Well, it’s a segment of its market. If your driveway and the road can provide you with electricity, why would you get rid of prime space for passive lighting (daylighting via skylights), or a roof top terrace, by placing solar panels there?
    On another prong of the fork of Musk’s companies, if roads are providing electric vehicles with the means of charging them ubiquitously, what addtional services are the Super Charger stations providing drivers? I imagine that Solar Roadways would also provide the option of charging an electric within 30 minutes, for free; though, the details on this have not been provided– at least not from what I have come across.
    If Solar Roadways is not already in one of Solar City’s and Tesla’s environmental scanning reports, it may be time that Solar Roadways gets put on their maps. I personally hope that it is not just a blip.

    • ,Man I really just got the same idea, at this time….I finish the video an google “Elon Musk Solar Roads” and find your comment. It is it…where the money you need to put this panels on road…..Elon Musk, Solar City and Tesla Motors

    • T.Rob says:

      Bonnie, that makes a lot more sense than some of the appeals I’ve seen. For example, recently it was “Balmer just spent $2B on a basketball team, we should ask him for funding.” A while back it was “Musk funded the Tesla museum, we should ask him for funding.” Although this approach of hitting up people who have recently donated or spent big bucks has some merit, it makes more sense if there’s a specific connection. I wasn’t keen on contacting Musk until I saw your comment so thanks for that.

  3. Now what happens if a meteor falls out of the sky or an airplane crashes, or it gets damaged by a creep just out looking for something to bomb, what would that do? Now if it would not do anything to all of the people trying to rescue the ones in danger of losing their lives nor put anyone else in harms way I would say why don’t you put them in every state and have all of the people working? But if it is just another thing to be afraid of lets not subjegate our citizens to all of the clear and present dangers. In fact lets put all of the people to work on all of the roads through the entire country!

    • T.Rob says:

      The roads and other paved surfaces form a grid in the same way that the electrical power lines form a grid. It’s possible to take out a portion of the grid without taking down the entire grid so it is possible to route around damage.

      There are two VERY important differences though. First is that our current model of using central generation is prone to failure. As an outage grows, the demand on remaining plants grows with it. If the least powerful of these overloads and goes offline, it can cause a cascading failure leading to an event like when the entire Eastern Seaboard went dark. Since Solar Roadways panels distribute the generation of power across many square miles of surface, it is nearly impossible to take out large portions of capacity all at once, greatly reducing the possibility of cascading failure. If your driveway is paved with these things and a section of road a mile away is washed out along with all it’s solar pavers, your home is still powered.

      The second difference is the density of the grid. How many high-tension power lines and how many power substations are you personally aware of? How many roads are you personally aware of? Loss of a single power substation or high-tension line can cause a large local outage because it’s a big node on a sparse grid. Compare to loss of a single solar paver which would go completely unnoticed. Completely rip the pavers out of an entire city block and the effects still aren’t as large as loss of a single power substation.

      In terms of the risks you cite I believe that Solar Roadways are far and away an improvement over the existing technology. Do you as well, or have I overlooked some aspect of it?

  4. mtelkin says:

    Reblogged this on The Write Outlook and commented:
    This project is an amazing idea that this country sorely needs. This post goes a long way to explaining the business reasons for why we should fund it privately via the Solar Roadway Indiegogo campaign, which you can donate to, if you want to, at this link. I’m working on my own post about it, but I found tdotrob’s post first so I thought I’d send it along!

    • T.Rob says:

      Thanks for the reblog, Matt! Nice cover photo on your blog. Reminds me of Alexis Birkill’s work. Drop by his site if you are a fan of amazing landscape photography.

      • mtelkin says:

        No problem! Thanks for writing such a great post about Solar Roadways!

        Thanks. I took that picture on a beach near where I used to live. I will!

  5. Justin says:

    Great post. I love the summary of benefits you created, and it is exciting to consider that there could be even more applications that haven’t even been voiced yet. Thanks for getting the word out!

    • T.Rob says:

      Oh, there are TONS of applications not yet voiced. Imagine your driveway or a space in a public park paved with these. People wanting to use the space can dynamically reconfigure it for basketball, tennis, hopscotch. Turn an ordinary broom into a stylus and make the world’s biggest Light Bright in your driveway. Organizing a distance run? Temporarily arrange the roads into lanes for the runners. Hook up the driveway to the alarm system so first responders have a giant beacon telling them which house the ambulance needs to stop at. Even more transformative, why stop at inductive charging for cars? Why not have inductive-powered scooters and mo-peds and ditch the car altogther in places?

      Back in the early 1980’s when HTTP was overtaking WAIS and Gopher in number of deployed servers, we had no idea hyperlinked documents would lead to EBay, Wikipedia, Amazon, iTunes, WordPress and all the amazing web-based things we take for granted today. Similarly, we can’t now imagine the ways in which virtually unlimited free power and smart roadways will transform the world. But having lived through the 1980’s we should at least learn from history and anticipate that it will do so and take action to make that happen. That’s why I’m so glad to see the positive response to Solar Roadways and that people understand we need to fund it privately. I can’t wait for the future. Whoops – here it is!

  6. While I look forward to the day I can pave my driveway with these, It also occurs to me that making lifetime roofing with this same technology would mean I don’t have to choose between rooftop solar collectors and a rooftop deck. This could give me a flat roof that could generate power on the hot sunny days, and let me star gaze on the cool nights.

    • T.Rob says:

      And on overcast nights, it could display the starfield for you. If we want to get a bit exotic, it would be possible to link a grid of roofs and use them as pixels in a giant display. I’d like to think we’d then do something cool with that but I suspect the homeowner’s association would forget about levying dues and just sell aerial advertising instead.

  7. very nice understanding of the project and its benefits, good show

  8. Ann Baroco says:

    Good job with this one. I enjoyed your writing! I am so excited about Solar Roadways and ecstatic that it has gotten so much momentum. I can’t see how this can’t happen- I just hope sooner than later. Thanks for doing your part to get the information out to the masses!

    • T.Rob says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Ann! Re: Momentum – this post in a day has risen to 5th place of all time on the blog and is now being tweeted with the #pleasesharewithworld hashtag. It’s an amazing response and I’m so grateful! We also seem to be getting even more funding from the exposure.

  9. John Whitney says:

    ‘Paver modules are incrementally upgradeable to new technology’. Doesn’t this feature lend support to the prospect of self driving cars receiving feedback thru imbeded roadway sensors?

    • T.Rob says:

      Yes! I have contacted some former IBM colleagues in the Smarter Transportation project who are working on V2I (Vehicle to Infrastructure) networking to tell them about Solar Roadways. It seems to me they will either incorporate Solar Roadways tech or become a big competitor. Hopefully, the former.

  10. Good thinking. You’ve come up with MORE reasons how this is a great idea. Been watching this and promoting the idea for a couple of years. The naysayers jump all over this like dogs on a rabbit, even before they read the FAQ’s. It won’t be long before graphene technology is applied to solar, processors, conductive & composite materials. I kicked in a couple of bucks.

    • T.Rob says:

      Thanks for the boost, Bruce! I’m eagerly awaiting the more efficient solar cells but skeptical that the governments of the world will help as noted in the post. The other half of that is, of course, what happens to the big energy companies? They also need central generation so they have something to sell you. If we have surplus power which is free after the infrastructure is paid off, do we even meter it? Or do we eliminate power bills altogether and just recover infrastructure cost through taxes? Seems likely that Big Energy doesn’t want the shakeout that will occur during the transition and will seek to prevent it.

  11. T.Rob says:

    So many cool projects going on in Australia these days. The edentiti folks, Meeco, and more. Seems like Solar Roadways would be a perfect fit for the forward thinking folks there. At this point I don’t care who lays down the first test track, so long as it gets installed soon. Of course, my driveway is dumb impervious concrete at the moment. I’ll volunteer to make the sacrifice and dig it up if Scott & Julie need a pilot project closer to home. It would be inconvenient and my wife would hate parking on the street for a week, but that’s how generous I am.

  12. anne Cattermole says:

    great article with good understanding of the project which i have followed almost from its inception.
    I really want to see solar roadways established.I think its scope in my country Australia will be huge

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