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Can solar roadways lead somewhere?

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When I wrote about solar roadways just a few weeks ago, the start-up from a little town in Idaho was in the midst of raising money on Indiegogo, a crowdfunding website.
Korky Koroluk
Korky Koroluk

Construction Corner | Korky Koroluk

When I wrote about solar roadways just a few weeks ago, the start-up from a little town in Idaho was in the midst of raising money on Indiegogo, a crowdfunding website.

The company founders, electrical engineer Scott Brusaw, and his wife Julie, needed US$1 million, to finance the next stage of their dream: To build solar-powered roadways paved with glass-enclosed solar panels to carry traffic, and, at the same time, provide power to light the road, melt ice and snow, and send surplus energy to the power grid.

There was some clever marketing involved — videos, endorsements from famous people, and a website that seemed to answer any possible objections.

It worked. When the funding campaign closed at the end of the day on June 20, the Brusaws had raised US$2,200,961, all from small donations, some as little as $5, and 28,439 of $50 or less. The idea clearly appealed to a lot of ordinary people

In the meantime, people with an eye for the bottom line pooh-poohed the idea, building straw men which they proceeded to knock down.

The Brusaws have talked about using their system to pave all of America’s highways. Do that, they have said, and you can generate far more power than the country uses.

To do that, though, would, by some estimates, cost more than $1 trillion. Clearly unaffordable. But I’ve found no one who suggests that it all be done at once.

The Brusaws’ system would, in effect, rebuild the American power grid into a true “smart” grid. That may be true, except that, since the project would have be done in stages, tapping into the grid as the roadways were built, it would really mean a gradual augmentation of the existing grid, which needs to be done anyway.

There are other problems, of course, and intermittency of sunlight is one that critics of solar power love to point to. Solar panels, to be efficient, need to be kept clean, and roadways tend to get pretty dirty. Much glass is slippery when wet. The Brusaws say their panels have passed engineering tests for traction, but don’t say who did them, beyond citing “civil engineering laboratories.”

The Brusaws say their roadway would be kept clear by using electricity to melt ice and snow. But if it’s snowing, the sun isn’t shining. So how, critics ask, is the electricity to be generated?

The point here is not that the concept is impossible, nor that it is feasible as it presently stands. But most of the problems cited by critics strike me as engineering problems that are probably not insoluble.

It reminds me of Elon Musk’s idea for evacuated tube trains that could travel between San Francisco and Los Angeles in half an hour. The notion was ridiculed when Musk first mentioned it in public. Then engineers began to take a sober second look at the technology that would be required, and announced that, yes, such a rail line could be built and made to work.

So, yes, the Brusaws’ idea might be made to work, provided the project is phased in bite-sized chunks, starting with a pilot project of several kilometres to prove, or disprove, the concept.

I believe that people who dare first to dream big, then to speak of their dream, deserve a lot of credit, even if a lot of science needs to be done to determine whether the dream might work or not.

So, start and if it turns out that the idea is feasible from an engineer’s point of view, then it’s time for the bean-counters and civic leaders to get out their calculators and find a way to make the idea a reality.

Solar roadways might be a pipe dream, an impossible idea. But we need to know more about the concept before we either reject or accept it.

Korky Koroluk is a regular freelance contributor to the Journal of Commerce. Send comments or questions to editor@journalofcommerce.com.

by Journal Of Commerce

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