Solar Streets: New Roadways May Ditch Asphalt for Energy-Generating Sunshine Collectors
As a kid in the 1960s, before most people had even heard of solar power, Scott Brusaw imagined “electric roads.” Almost five decades and two government-funded prototypes later, the electrical engineer from Ohio is on his way to raising $1 million to start producing solar panels for our streets and highways. Not to power the light, mind you—to function as streets and highways. Soon you may be driving on solar panels that power the buildings you’re passing by.
“We can use [photovoltaic panels] to create roads, parking lots, tarmacs—anything under the sun,” Brusaw says. “All of the current asphalt and concrete currently soaking up the sun can be covered with our technology to turn that sunlight into clean, renewable electricity.”
The biggest challenge Brusaw faced was engineering a case to protect the fragile solar cells. He began by researching the technology used in black boxes for airplanes and ended up using thick hardened glass. It sounds fragile, but after impact resistance and traction testing, it has proved able to handle trucks weighing several times the legal limit. A prototype solar parking lot in Sandpoint, Idaho, has been successful as well. If Brusaw’s crowdfunding campaign reaches its goal, production of the roadway panels could begin within a few months.
It may take some time to see them on highways, though. Neil Fromer, executive director of the Resnick Sustainability Institute at the California Institute of Technology, says installing solar power on large structures will take a lot of testing and paperwork.
“The regulatory challenges of putting solar panels on rooftops were significant over the last 20 or 30 years,” Fromer says. “It’s only an avalanche [of effort] that managed to get it really working, so doing the roads would be a big challenge.”
Electric safety concerns would also need to be addressed, he says, considering that the road is not controlled. But the end product might be well worth it.
“The tremendous amount of solar energy that hits the earth’s surface in an hour is enough to power the planet for a year,” Fromer explains. “So when you think about renewable energy in the long term, solar is a huge part of that.” Considering that pavement covers as much as half of many U.S. cities, a lot of electricity could be generated by covering it all with solar panels.
Brusaw’s project could have a huge impact—if it overcomes the many challenges to getting it out into the real world.
“I think this is pretty cool, and I don’t want to sound too pessimistic about it,” Fromer says. “It’s really just a question of integrating [solar energy] into our existing electrical system. Roads are great surfaces to try it.... Technology innovation always helps.”