Solar Roadways: A Modest Proposal?

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 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.

solar roadways a modest proposal

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.

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  • KrohmDohm KrohmDohm on May 29, 2014

    Making something passive (roads) an active part of our information and energy infrastructure is an idea whose time has come. Yes it is a reach to think these solar roadways will be implemented exactly as they appear today. This is an alpha product at best. A first stab at something new. Undoubtedly if this idea is implemented its form will be significantly different yet directly inspired by this product. Stating categorically "it'll never work" makes those saying it sound like luddites. Every new idea has detractors. Then when the new idea succeeds the critics eventually sing its praises. Our society's demands for more and more electricity dictate we find new ways to generate it. Get on board.

    • Carve Carve on May 29, 2014

      What problem does it solve? The reason solar hasn't caught on is not lack of space to put the panels; it's expense. Roof-mounted makes more sense on so many levels, and is far more efficient (aimed at the sun, cleaner) and can be built to take far less strenous loads. Once we run out of roof space, this might be a good option for unobtrusive solar installations, but even then farms out in the desert are probably more sensible.

  • MaxHedrm MaxHedrm on Jun 02, 2014

    There's another "feature" of the panels that wouldn't work ... at least not when they are actually generating power. The snazzy LED striping would be nearly invisible in the daylight. And the panels would need much higher resolution / LED density to be useful below highway speeds. A parking lot stripe would require a LOT more LEDs than their current designs contain.

  • Kip65688146 "Everyone is worried about the public stations, but why don't we focus on the low hanging fruit: home charging? "BAM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!.............This guy gets it!I'll add current battery tech means EV's in their current state are not replacements for ICE Cars & trucks but make a good argument as 2rd or 3rd vehicles in mulit-car households which is hardly a niche market.
  • 2ACL Looking forward to the next part. I didn't like the first generation, but the second-generation was on my radar; I like the low-key, yet elegant styling, and the automotive media raved that the road-handling was significantly cleaned up from its nautical predecessor's. I'd still consider one if a replacement event unexpectedly befell my TL, but developments since have made that something of a long shot.
  • Deanst “Switching to EVs will be end of the Dodge brand. Nobody wants EVs.”Tesla, a brand which only sells EVs, is the number 1 luxury vehicle seller in America. But do go on…….
  • Randall Tefft Sundeen Oldsmobile was ALWAYS my favorite GM marque ! I remember as a kid you couldn't walk down the street without tripping on one! In 1977 and 1984 respectively olds sold. Million units, GM's second biggest seller as well as being the test brand for new options (Why take a risk with Cadillac?) The first CLUTCHLESS MANUAL , the first ELECTRIC POWER WINDOWS the first AUTOMATIC not to mention in 1974 the first airbag. Iam fortunate enough to live in a warm climate where old cars are plentiful sadly very few Oldsmobiles. Many features we take for granted were developed by this special brand
  • Conundrum Some parts of the US are in a bad way due to drought and climate change as well, but Posky manages to avoid mentioning Lake Meade, Musk going bananas over no water for his Nevada gigafactory, a few wildfires and floods here and there. No let's have a chuckle over China's experience instead, and chuck in the name Toyota in the headline as a draw. Musk is demanding China ensures his Shanghai factory gets plent 'o power, because that's what spoilt billionaires do. Me, me, me first. Doesn't work when everyone's gasping for breath.Kind of seems to me that avoiding the obvious is the American way. Let's burn some more coal and make things much better! Yeah!Meanwhile, apparently whoever runs this website on a technical basis needs to go back to training school.meanwhileThe way this site "operates", which it mainly doesn't, is a complete farce!Let's have an opinionated article on that.