Last week, an amazing video popped up on my Facebook feed. Produced by a small Idaho based startup seeking funding from the public via an IndieGoGo campaign, it offers a glimpse into a possible future where the roads are made out of reinforced glass panels that contain solar cells, microprocessors and LEDs. The company, Solar Roadways, has been working on this product for years and it has already attracted a considerable amount of attention from the tech community. Now, as it seeks money to hire a team of engineers to perfect and streamline the production process, it appears as though Solar Roadways is finally ready for the big time.
The proposal is simple in concept but the implications and the potential costs are vast. The best breakdown I found comes from Singularityhub.com who looked at the project in-depth back in August of 2010 and crunched all the numbers with a mathematical expertise I have no hope of matching. The long and short of it is this: If we were to replace the approximately 30,000 square miles of paved roads, sidewalks and parking lots in our nation with currently available commercial solar panels which offer about 18.5% efficiency, the project could generate approximately 14 billion kilowatts of energy – or about three times what the US currently generates each year. Replacing all our nation’s pavement, however, would require around 5.6 billion panels and, at a cost of around $10,000 per 12’X12’ section, could ultimately cost somewhere on the order of $56 trillion dollars. Factoring in longevity and repairs, Singularity hub’s mathematicians figure that Solar roadways will be about 50% more expensive than asphalt but admit the relative costs may change given improvements in solar technology or a spike in oil prices.
Hard numbers aside, the technology presented is pretty amazing. Tied into a computer network, the LED lighting incorporated into the system could be used for any number of purposes including variable lanes, speed limits, crosswalks, or written warnings. The video also shows how heating elements could be used to keep the roadways free of ice and snow year round, something that might actually ease the coming transition to self-driving cars. Just sitting here thinking about it, it occurs to me that it may even be possible to tie the network into an on-the-road charging network where cars’ batteries are charged as they pass over magnetic fields generated by the roadway itself. Who knows how else it might be used?
It would be easy to dismiss this Solar Roadways as just another hippie dippy, pie in the sky idea but there was a time when many people dismissed the cellular telephone, too. The network was virtually nonexistent and the phones themselves were outrageously expensive, but what seemed only marginally useful back then has transformed modern day society in ways we never imagined. Solar Roadways, it seems to me, could be another leap forward and, while the costs are huge, so too is the opportunity. I’d like to see this go forward.
Solar Roadways’ IndieGoGo campaign has far exceeded its rather modest million dollar goal, but will remain open until the end of the month.