Solar Powered Roads: A Hoax or Panacea?

Solar Roads are all the rage on the internet now. This couple Julie and Scott from America started a company called Solar Roadways a few years back. They recently turned to indiegogo and got a whopping USD$1.8 million worth of support from plebeians who were equally hyped about their promise to save the world.

I came to awareness of this “tech” first from a friend who posted on facebook, boasting its prowess in making a real difference and even potentially considering working for it in the future. So I got curious and went to check it out. Their indiegogo campaign video “solar freakin roadways” was an excellent marketing feat. It made my heart race, blood accelerate and pupils dilate 10 times larger. As a first-time viewer, I was equally pumped about the idea of saving the world, ending global warming, generating new jobs and rescuing the failing economy – all these just by having solar road ways.

But aside from the incredible media and public attention it attracted, I started noticing that there was no indepth mentioning of the technical feasibility in terms of cost, scalability or implementation of the project. Their pitch for the $1m call was this:

“We asked for $1 million to hire an initial team of engineers to help us make a few needed tweaks in our product and streamline our process so that we could go from prototype to production.”

There was hardly much scientific backup of why this would be a better alternative to the existing solar panels that we see fixed on roof tops, desserts and other open spaces. They claim their version of solar panel to be “smart, micropocessing, interlocking, hexagonal” solar panels. After given $750,000 fund from the Federal Highway Administration back in 2011, all they came up with was a small parking lot prototype.

What about the cost of digging up old roads, putting in the new solar ones and connecting all of the million highways and roads together? How do they transmit the electricity generated from sun to actually power houses or buildings? What exactly is the advantage of these over existing solar systems? If the main goal of the roads is to harness solar power, wouldn’t it make more sense to just build solar panels on totally unobstructed surfaces rather than roads where cars would be overshadowing the panels?

So they tried addressing some of the questions in their FAQ, such as:

How much will your panels cost?

We are not yet able to give numbers on cost. We are still in the midst of our Phase II contract with the Federal Highway Administration and we’ll be analyzing our prototype costs near the end of our contract which ends in July, 2014. Afterward, we’ll be able to do a production-style cost analysis.

If a parking lot is full of cars or a highway has lots of traffic, how are they going to produce any energy?

Traffic jam

This picture is from Orange County, CA during work traffic. The upper six lanes are what we’d refer to as “bumper to bumper” traffic. Even with this congestion, you can see how much of the road surface is still exposed to sunlight. As we travel around the country doing speaking engagements, we see miles and miles of roads and highways with virtually no traffic. So we believe it will have a negligible impact on the Solar Roadway’s overall efficiency.

Sure, but…What if it was this instead?

So essentially, the couple is counting on random piecemeal shots from Google Earth to tell us that there wouldn’t be problem with collecting enough energy to offset the high installation costs, because there will not be much traffic as depicted from this photo. Very dubious-sounding evidence. Sounds more like a dire need to learn the art of data research and analysis to make a more cogent argument. Up to now, it is all talk and little proof. I await their analysis report in the near future and hopefully, their backers would not be disappointed with their investments and that this idea would actually be one that works.