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May 20, 2015updated 29 Jul 2021 11:48am

The great “solar freakin’ roadways” debate

By Barbara Speed

Back in 2006, a couple from Idaho formed a small company named “Solar Roadways Incorporated”. Scott and Julie Brusaw had a new, and, they hoped, revolutionary idea: they wanted to replace every road, car park, driveway, pavement and patio in America with solar panels. 

The US Department of Transportation thought this was a pretty good idea, too: in 2009, it granted the company a $100,000 small business grant to build small parking lot covered in the panels. In 2011, it gave them another $750,000. The final product is a 12 by 36 foot area covered in hexagon shaped tiles which produce solar energy, and self-heat to stop snow and ice from sticking. They also light up to create road markings, or to indicate there’s an animal on the road. Here it is: 

The Brusaws admire their first solar roadway. Image: Solar Roadways Incorporated. 

Excited to start producing their invention on a mass scale, the Brusaws launched an Indiegogo crowdsourcing campaign to raise funds, complete with a campaign video aiming to appeal to the internet generation with jolly animations, and the catchy name “solar freakin’ roadways”. This, surprisingly enough, worked – so well, in fact, that the video went viral. At time of writing, it has almost 20m views. 

And then came the backlash. 

Videos and articles appeared, from both reputable scientists, and the kind who have “marked for deletion” Wikipedia pages. They slammed the idea as neither economically nor scientifically sound. A single Reddit thread discussing criticisms of the idea from YouTube user Thunderf00t – who has made several videos debunking the roadways, as well as several more debunking feminism, to give you a flavour of his views – stretches to over 1,000 comments. It was as close to Gamergate as any debate about energy-generating paving stones will ever get. The whole thing was quite remarkable.

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Despite this, the IndieGogo campaign was the site’s most successful ever, and the Brusaws raised over $2.25m from donors in 165 countries. They can name Star Trek actor George Takei as among their fans. 

Now, the Brusaws have rebranded the company “Solar Roadways – a real solution” (presumably to emphasise the veracity of the claims they’ve made for their invention), and have retreated with their Indiegogo cash to carry out more research and development. Meanwhiile, there’s a page on their site dedicated to, in their words, “clearing the freakin’ air”, and debunking various claims people have made about the roadways. Below are a few of the claims and counter-claims. 

Glass isn’t the right material for roads

The critics say: As you might have noticed, roads and pavements are currently built from very strong materials like concrete and asphalt. Glass would, at first glance, be a somewhat unwise subsitute: it can shatter, for one, but it could also lose its transparency as it gets scuffed and covered in dirt. That, in turn, could stop light getting through to the solar panels.

The Brusaws say: The glass on the panels’ surface is specially manufactured to be strong – it’s “tempered”, which makes it five to six times stronger than normal glass. On their site, they also have a complicated-looking chart of “hardness” which shows that plate glass is actually up to five times harder than asphalt anyway. Of course, it’s still more likely to shatter – but they say that, because the glass is tempered, it would break “into little pebble-like pieces, without sharp edges”. So, er, that’s all right then. 

Cars will block the sunlight

The critics say: All the areas which would be covered by the panels under the Brusaw’s masterplan – car parks, roads, etc. – are often covered up by parked or moving cars. This would limit the amount of sunlight that could get through to the panels. 

The Brusaws say: Yes, if a panel was covered, it wouldn’t generate energy, but it wouldn’t cause any problems for the rest of the system. The Brusaws are using “microinverters”, which allow the panels to act independently of one another. This means that if one hexagonal tile is blocked, the others can carry on collecting energy. 

How much will this actually cost?

Cost relies on all sorts of factors: state budgets, the scale of production, the price of the finalised prototype, and the panels’ durability. The Brusaws say they can’t give a cost estimate per panel yet, not least because they’re still building the panels by hand.

However, it’s fair to say each one would be pretty tech-heavy, featuring lights and heaters on top of the solar material. And this comes with another downside, on top of the costs of production: as one redditor pointed out, “What’s there to stop joe shmo from walking out of his house to the nearest road and helping himself to a couple thousand dollars worth of solar absorbing gadgetry?” Maintenance would also be more expensive than on other types of roads – though the couple claim the roads would pay for that themselves, through all the energy they’re generationg. 

You can read more in the Brusaws’ myth-busting post here. On the same page, the Brusaws also air their own theories on why they’ve received so much criticism: 

For some it’s just too scary. They want to just keep things the same. Perhaps they are the descendants of those who argued that the earth was flat, that we didn’t need cars because horses worked just fine, told the Wright Brothers they were out of their minds, or insisted that we’d never reach the moon.

Or perhaps they are the voices of larger entities who are now feeling threatened by the paradigm shift that is Solar Roadways.

As the debate rumbles on, their invention (or, as they call it, a “movement”), has had an indirect boost from events in a small Dutch village. Krommenie is home to the first solar road – actually a bike path – which opened in November 2014. The consortium that created the 70m-long path have said that the energy output so far has far outpaced even optimistic lab predictions: it’s already generated enough to power a one-person household for a year, apparently

For now, though, it seems most likely that the Brusaws’ invention could be most easily put to use in limited ways, such as on private driveways on in schools: widespread scepticism implies that their dreamed of cross-USA rollout doesn’t seem imminent. But then again, who knows? We did once think the earth was flat, after all. 

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