My Facebook feed has been blowing up this week with posts raving about a solar panel system designed to be embedded into roads, driveways and other driveable surfaces. The story links to a video produced for an Indigogo fundraising campaign called Solar Roadways. Here's that video:
The campaign has raised more than $1.5 million as of publication of this post, well over the million-dollar goal. More than 38,000 people have contributed to that total.
At the expense of being labeled a crotchety old man (at the ripe old age of 36), let me state here for the record that I think this project is a bunch of smoke and mirrors and will fail hard. The Solar Roadways project has been kicking around since 2006 and has been collecting thoughtful detractors all the way (while failing to raise any kind of meaningful investment capital to implement their plans). Treehugger’s Lloyd Alter was pointing out the project’s flaws way back in 2009 and Jeremy Elton Jacquot did it even earlier than that in 2007. Lloyd’s post has a bunch of links to other writers’ takedowns of the concept.
The main arguments against Solar Roadways boil down to:
• The panels would cost too much both as a solar panel and as a road surface.
• They won’t produce enough energy relative to conventional solar panels.
• There is no shortage of space to mount solar panels, so no need to embed them in the road.
• They are a maintenance nightmare compared to conventional road surfaces.
In short, they are a (bad) solution in search of a problem. Even if they could do everything they purport to do, there is no need for them.
I think it’s unfortunate that thousands of people are throwing good money after this bad project, and I want to help shed a little light on the situation. In that spirit, I decided to run through the "Solar FREAKIN’ Roadways!" video second-by-second with some commentary.
0:00 || Intro: It’s catchy and well produced, you gotta give them that.
0:12 || What is it? “It’s technology that replaces all roadways, parking lots, sidewalks, driveways, tarmacs, bike paths, and outdoor recreation surfaces with solar panels.”
OK, so that sets the scope of the project. They want to replace all of those surfaces with their product. According to the Federal Highway Administration, there are a little more than 4 million miles of roads in the United States. There are somewhere around 1 billion parking spaces in the U.S., and who knows how many square miles of sideways, driveways, tarmacs, bike paths and recreational surfaces. We’re talking about a lot of surface space.
00:26 || “No more useless asphalt and concrete just sitting there baking in the sun needing to be repaved and filling with potholes that ruin your axle alignment on your sweet ride bro.”
So these solar panel modules will never break or need to be replaced?
0:36 || “These are intelligent solar panels replaced a panel at a time if they are damaged or malfunctioning.”
What’s more expensive? A blinged-up LED-embedded solar panel or a bucket of asphalt? Unfortunately we don’t know exactly how wide the difference is because Solar Roadways has not released any numbers in terms of costs, but I’ll take a stab in the dark that the solar modules are going to be MUCH more expensive than a bucket of asphalt. This matters. If a square foot of road costs 10, 20, or 40 times more to cover with solar panels than asphalt, then it will never get covered with solar panels, even if there is a purported multi-decade payoff period for the panels.
00:40 || “They’re covered with a new tempered glass material that has been designed and tested to meet all impact, load, and traction requirements.”
And that also greatly reduces the efficiency of the panels by partially blocking sunlight. So far we have a solar panel that costs a lot more and produces a lot less energy than a conventional free-standing panel. Not a great recipe for success in the renewable energy field.
It should also be pointed out that to date, Solar Roadways has only built a 400-square-foot parking lot. In relative terms, it’s like they’ve built a soda bottle water rocket and claiming their next step is a trip to the moon. Even worse, they’ve raised more than $1.5 million on that promised trip to the moon.
00:45 || “Oh and did I mention they’re also solar panels! They generate electricity, they generate capital. They pay for themselves and they keep paying more because we’re not going to run out of sun for like 15,000,000,000 years.”
They are correct in claiming these are attributes of solar panels, but fail to mention that you will generate a lot more electricity and a lot more capital at a lower initial cost if you just buy conventional solar panels and stick them up into the air.
1:36 || “Every panel has a series of LED lights on the circuit board that can be programmed to make landscape designs, warning signs, parking lot configurations, whatever. These roads never have to have lanes repainted, just reprogrammed to whatever we choose.”
This is starting to feel like the results of a late-night bull session between drunk freshmen electrical engineers. “Let’s add LED lights to it!”
LED lights and the circuitry needed to run them add a non-negligible premium to the cost of the modules and an extra layer of operational complexity (the more complex the machine, the higher the chances for failure). And while LEDs are more efficient than conventional lights, it would not be cheap to continually operate an entire parking lot full of LED lit markings, to say nothing of miles of roads.
The rest of this section is more of the same. “And we’ll let people chose their own sports configurations! Yeah! That’ll be so cool!” This is 100 percent pure hype — nothing more and nothing less. Shiny sparkly lights to catch your attention and your dollars.
2:13 || “But these panels are also pressure sensitive so they can detect when large debris like branches or boulders have fallen onto the road. Or if an animal is crossing it can warn drivers with LED text to slow down for an obstruction."
Gotcha. So add pressure sensitivity and the ability for individual modules to communicate and be remotely controlled to the cost of manufacturing. Throw in the development costs of the software that allows for this functionality and hope that Google will pick up the bill, because it’s going to be a big one.
2:29 || “Solar Roadways uses as much recycled material in their production as possible.”
This tells me nothing. And why is this paired with a video of the solar roadways founders shoveling dirt into a wheelbarrow? Are they forging components from the very ground itself?
“Plus the roadways have two channels that form what’s called a cable corridor that runs concurrently with the roadways themselves.”
Oh, that’ll be cheap to build and maintain. They also want to move all power lines and cable infrastructure to their cable corridors, freeing us from the scourge of utility poles. What a noble (and humble) enterprise.
2:53 || “The other channel captures and filters stormwater and melted snow, moving them out to a treatment facility or treating them onsite.”
We’re not even three minutes in and I’ve completely lost all ability to take this video seriously. Sure, why not add water transportation and treatment to the list of features. Let’s throw everything up on the wall and see what sticks.
3:11 || Prerequisite appeal to job creation. People like jobs; can’t go wrong there.
3:18 || “Is this thing even possible? I told you, YES!”
There’s a self-labeled emotional interlude that combines artfully shot outdoor scenes with slow music and a general call to action to make the world a better place through taking action by giving money to fund Solar Roadways.
Then the shouty voice spins back up and yells some more about how awesome the future would look if the ground could light up. You won’t have to shovel your driveway. Mardi Gras will be more colorful. And you’ll enjoy candyflipping even more at Detroit raves, thanks to the pretty lights in the floor.
5:14 || “It has been estimated that if all the roads in America were converted to solar roadways, the country would generate three times as much energy as it currently uses.”
And if I had wings, I could fly. Does anyone want to estimate what it would cost to replace every road in America with super expensive solar panel models that are less efficient than conventional panels? I’m not sure there is enough money and raw materials in the world to build it or a annual budget big enough to maintain such a thing.
The Solar Roadways website is light on numbers when it comes to costs and for good reason — as soon as you actually run the numbers, this project becomes completely untenable. It costs more money, produces less electricity at a higher cost, and introduces major new complexities into an already complex transportation system. The numbers won’t lie.
From here, there is more shouting, centered around the repetition of “Solar roadways!” (We get it). In general, it feels like an infomercial. Do you like saving the world!? If so, act now and we’ll throw in LED lights! The video continues to throw spaghetti up on the wall and promises to fight high gas prices, eliminate snow shoveling and moose road deaths, provide jobs, and save the planet. But only if you give your money to Scott and Julie Brusaw.
The last minute runs through the credits and ends with a soulful and uplifting jam.
Technically speaking, the video is a work of art. It obviously accomplished its purpose of bringing in the Indigogo dollars and has been shared far and wide on social media.
But the video’s technical mastery doesn’t change the fact that the technology being described within is a bad and sketchy solution in search of a problem.
The United States does not suffer for lack of space to mount solar panels. Just look up. There are millions of rooftops just waiting for solar panel installations to say nothing of the range of wide-open spaces found throughout America.
With that as a given, there is no good reason to put solar panels in roadways, even when you factor out that Solar Roadways cost more and produce less energy than standard panels.
Count me out for this one. I think everyone who is contributing to Solar Roadways is wasting their money. This is a smoke and mirrors project whose sole asset is a slickly-produced video. Unfortunately you can’t cancel a pledge once you’ve made it on Indigogo, though you can ask Solar Roadways for a refund.
A chart of where your money will go if you contribute to the Solar Roadways Indigogo campaign.
June 3 edit: I was sent a link to this very excellent video going into more technical details on why Solar Roadways is a dud of a project. It's worth the watch:
Want to read more about solar? Check out these posts here on MNN: