Solar Roadways: Great idea or wishful thinking?

Seattle Roadway
Seattle Roadway

By Beth Kelly

When considering the future of our roads, most people concerned with energy-efficiency think first of the vehicles traversing along these routes.

Electric vehicles, hybrids and other greener options have all been analyzed, optimized and criticized with respect to the cleaner transit movement.

Other innovators, however, have also begun to look at the surface beneath the vehicle, and the potential it holds for both our economy and the environment. The Oregon Solar Highway is one such example. The first solar highway project in the US, it has been running efficiently for nearly six years, feeding renewable energy into the area’s electricity grid.

A collaborative effort between the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT), Portland General Electric and the US Bank, the project is a 104 Kilowatt (dc) ground-mounted solar array of 594 solar panels, which offsets over one-third of the energy needed for freeway illumination at the site.

The success of the group effort has led ODOT to explore further opportunities. Thus far the project is generating energy next to areas roadways, not the actual roadways themselves. However, others are looking at ways of generating energy from the road surface itself.

In one such idealistic initiative, an Idaho couple, Julie and Scott Brusaw, have raised more than $2 million on Indiegogo for their objective to replace an entire nation’s asphalt with solar panels. The monumental project, they say, would filter storm water, replace above-ground power cables, prevent icy roads by melting snow and even light up with warning signs—all while producing more than three times the electricity the US currently uses.

But a project of this size would have to consider several barriers—cost being the primary one. As science writer Aaron Saenz guessed when the project first began making headlines in 2010, a complete replacement would cost roughly $15 trillion.

Deploying solar efforts on a smaller scale may be more viable for the time being. Solar roofing technology, while not exactly new, is being installed with greater ease and efficiency than ever before. Solar parking lots, and other collections of solar cells, can be tailored to fit the design various properties and topographic contours. While engineers continue to explore solar potential on a grand scale, it’s important to remember the smaller steps that can be taken at home to convert the sun’s rays to energy.

For solar roadways to be a success in any country, it would require cooperation between the government, major power companies, transportation departments and taxpayers to fund it. Though most large electric providers participate in the growth of renewable energy sources—as was the case in Oregon—until a project lowers in cost enough to become a viable business option, they won’t be interested.

Still, the innovation is more than admirable, and if the right private companies invest in the technology, prove its practicality, and fine-tune the product, then we could be looking at a future of lit-up roadways. One question though: will the electrical system be compatible with our hover cars?

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