While the idea may sound outlandish to some, it has already got $850,000 in seed money from the U.S. federal government, raised more than $2 million on a crowd-funding website and received celebrity praise.
Solar Roadways is part of a larger movement that seeks to integrate renewable energy technology — including wind, geothermal and hydro power — seamlessly into society.
The Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group based in Washington, D.C., described companies like Solar Roadways as "niche markets" in the booming alternative energy industry.
"They represent the type of creative innovation that addresses design and energy, while showcasing the diversity of solar applications," said Tom Kimbis, a vice president of the association.
Brusaw said that in addition to producing energy, the solar panels can melt away snow and ice, and display warning messages or traffic lines with LED lights.
To demonstrate the concept, the company has created a small parking lot at its headquarters, using 108 solar panels. Vehicles have been driven onto the space, without damaging the panels, he said. "We'll start off small with driveways and walkways," he said.
His wife Julie came up with the idea after watching An Inconvenient Truth, the global warming movie featuring former Vice President Al Gore, Brusaw said.
The U.S. Federal Highway Administration gave the Brusaws $850,000 to develop Solar Roadways over the past few years, and build the prototype parking lot. The floodgates opened when actor George Takei of Star Trek fame and the TV show MythBusters mentioned the company. They received donations from more than 45,000 people in 50 countries.
"Once we've perfected everything, our ultimate goal will be highways," he said.
Earlier this week, the first solar roadway opened in Amsterdam — a 70-meter stretch of cycle path between two suburbs of the city that generates solar power from rugged, textured glass-covered photovoltaic cells. My significant other, Jessica Hall, happens to be spending a semester in Amsterdam and was willing to trek out to the Krommenie-Wormerveer cross-connection to see this solar roadway in action.
Below, we’ll answer some common questions people have raised about the projects and the road itself. One thing to know about the Netherlands is that biking is huge there, despite the wet, maritime climate. Building a solar bike path isn’t a throwaway gesture as it is in the United States, and the bike path itself, as you’ll see, is laned like a modern road. This project is built by SolaRoad — it’s different from the crowdfunded Solar Roadways project that we wrote about earlier this year.
One of the questions readers have raised is what traction could be like on a solar roadbed. According to Jess, the road is heavily textured and bumpy to the point that she’d be less afraid of wiping out on concrete than on the solar section.
Are these new roads more reflective than previous surfaces. They definitely are — though whether this will be a problem for riders is unclear. You can clearly see reflections in the road surface.
One reason installing these solar panels on a bike path makes more sense than a traditional road is the wear-and-tear expected on the road itself. According to studies, one reasonable method of estimating road wear is the so-called fourth-power law, which states that the damage a vehicle causes to a road surface is related to the fourth power of its axle weight. Speed and tire pressure all play a part, but the end result is that cars are at least several thousand times more damaging to a road surface than bikes, and trucks are thousands of times more damaging than cars.
For now, the entire project is a proof-of-concept demonstration. Plenty of people who are otherwise enthusiastic proponents of solar power are dubious of embedding panels into roadways, and we’ll have to wait and see how this solution performs under real-world conditions to draw conclusions.
Kudos to Amsterdam (and Jess Hall) for taking the plunge on an idea and serving as remote photojournalist, respectively. There are some additional photos of the solar roadway available on Imgur.