Could There Be a Solar Powered Road? | Innovation | Smithsonian
Current Issue
November 2014 magazine cover
Subscribe

Save 81% off the newsstand price!

Could There Be a Solar Powered Road?

smithsonian.com

It was cloudy the other day in Washington.

I’m sure you find that fascinating. But I mention it because that night a local weatherman said he’d been getting calls from people who said they were really happy not to see the sun.

We are coming off the hottest month in Washington history. By the end of month, people were looking like they had walked out of a Dali painting. My guess is that this summer has created a lot of sun haters around the country. Enough, already, we’re fully baked here.

In the spirit of keeping an open mind, let’s focus on the sun’s good side. Let’s talk light. These are pretty good times for solar power. The cost of solar panels keeps dropping, making it more competitive with old school energy, such as coal. Some solar companies, using fields of mirrors and molten salt, have actually come up with a way to generate power at night. Out in the Mojave Desert in California, there’s a construction boom of solar power plants.

Yet let's not get carried away. Solar still accounts for only about 1 percent of the U.S. energy supply. And that boom out in the Mojave?  Well, a lot of it was goosed by federal loan guarantees funded by stimulus money. And we know that’s not happening again anytime soon.

I’m taking the long view. The more solar is integrated into our daily lives, the less "alternative" it feels. It doesn't hurt that the Washington Redskins are installing 8,000 solar panels in the parking lots around FedEx Field. And that Arizona State University just signed a deal to have large solar energy shades built over parking spaces outside Sun Devil Stadium.

But we’ll really know we’re one with the sun if Scott Brusaw pulls off his dream. Two years ago, Brusaw, an electrical engineer in Idaho, caused a stir when he proposed replacing all of the asphalt of America’s highways with solar panels. Now that’s crazy talk.

Yet he’s persevered. He knows that some people think he’s some techno Don Quixote, and they’re the nice ones. He’s heard all the questions. How long would it hold up?  How could you ever get the traction you do on asphalt? How could you make it transparent without creating glare? And the big one—wouldn’t this cost more money than there is in the world?

Brusaw says his solar highways would ultimately more than pay for themselves with the energy they produce. Plus, they’d be very cool. Smart LED lights would serve as lane markers and spell out messages. The panels would melt ice and even let you know if a deer’s about to cross your path. Brusaw lays it all out in a video.

Sure, it sounds insane. But just last month, his company, Solar Roadways, received a $750,000 grant from the Federal Highway Administration to get his show on the road. Actually, in a parking lot.

So this is going to take a while. You can kill a little of that time by checking out this photo gallery at Earth Techling of sun-powered stuff that seemed like a good idea at the time.  To someone.

Tags

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus