Winter storms recently left Atlanta and other cities paralyzed by an overabundance of snow and ice. But what if road crews weren't as crucial for clearing streets and highways? What if the roads could clear themselves?
That's the idea behind two different solar-powered road systems currently in development. The systems would store the power of the sun to help clear streets and possibly provide an alternative source of electricity.
"We have more than 3 million miles of highways exposed to sunlight, so if we can harness this energy, it's free," Rajib Mallick, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, told CNN.
Mallick's idea is to embed pavement with fluid-filled pipes. The fluid, which would be resistant to freezing, would be heated by the sun and stored in an insulated chamber. When ice and snow hit the roads, the heated fluid could be released to melt the snow. The heat from the fluid could also be used to provide electricity to nearby buildings.
The project's cost is estimated at $12,500 for every 50 meters of pipe, plus annual maintenance costs of $1,000. But Mallick tells CNN the system could pay for itself in six months while also providing enough electricity to heat 55 homes for one month a year.
A similar idea is in development in Idaho by engineer Scott Brusaw, founder of Solar Roadways. His system would replace traditional asphalt with sturdy solar panels. The Federal Highway Administration helped fund development of his prototype.
According to Brusaw's website, "The Solar Roadway is a series of structurally engineered solar panels that are driven upon." The solar panels would power LED lights in the road lines, help melt ice and snow, and provide electricity for charging electric cars and for nearby buildings. "This renewable energy," says the Solar Roadways site, "replaces the need for the current fossil fuels used for the generation of electricity. This, in turn, cuts greenhouse gases literally in half."
Each 12- by 12-foot Solar Roadway panel would cost $6,900, according to a 2009 report from PhysOrg.com. But each panel would also generate 7.6 kilowatt-hours of energy per day.
While solar-powered roads would cut state budgets for plowing, sanding and salting, finding the money to pay for them could be a challenge. "There aren't a lot of revenue sources to pay for this," Robert E. Lang, director of University of Nevada Las Vegas' Brookings Mountain West think tank, told CNN.
But Brusaw said opposition to solar roads is more based on fear than cost. "Change. It scares people, I think."
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