Over the past decade, the startup behind the development of photovoltaic cell-embedded tempered glass street pavers has amassed a not-so-small army of optimistic, checkbook-wielding supporters. This includes the U.S. Department of Transportation, which awarded entrepreneur/electrical engineer Scott Bursaw and his wife, Julie, with two sizable grants in 2009 ($100,000) and 2015 ($750,000) to further develop and test their potentially game-changing concept.
And then there are the skeptics and haters, some of whom believe the whole enterprise, suitably named Solar Roadways, is not only a bad idea but a scam — a scam which, in 2014, involved almost 50,000 people forking over a collective $2.3 million during a runaway success of an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign. That’s a whole lot of eyes and a whole lot of wool.
Somewhere between these two camps are curious folks who are keen, even excited about, the notion of solar energy-generating streets and sidewalks but aren’t quite sure if such a technology could transition from starry-eyed prototype to real-world infrastructure project from a logistical and financial standpoint. Awesome … but let’s what and see how feasibility studies pan out is the general sentiment here.
Finally, there’s the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT), which just recently announced that it was in talks with Sandpoint, Idaho-based Solar Roadways to test the startup's schismatic solar innovation as part of its Road to Tomorrow initiative. And what better place to try out structurally engineered photovoltaic road panels than on the Mother Road herself: U.S. Highway 66?
Solar Roadways' LED-embedded photovoltaic paving panels have been attracting attention for a while now. The Missouri Department of Transportation is now in talks with the startup to test the technology at an Ozarkian rest stop along Route 66. (Photo: Solar Roadways)
Well, kind of.
Although much has changed along the Missouri-bound stretch of Historic Route 66 (a National Scenic Byway), the Show Me State has strived to preserve the once-plentiful kitsch that, sadly, all but vanished from the iconic highway by the mid-1980s. Lined with kooky roadside attractions, greasy spoon diners and enough neon signage to make Las Vegas weak at the knees, the original route, established in 1926, stretched 2,451 miles from Chicago to Santa Monica. In 1989, Missouri became one of the fist states to boast a preservation-minded Route 66 association. Today, all eight states the Route 66 passes through have one, bound together by the Route 66 Alliance.
Solar Roadway’s hexagon-shaped panels won’t replace traditional asphalt on Route 66 itself. Rather, the panels will be installed at the Historic Route 66 Welcome Center near Conway off Interstate 44. Located between Springfield and St. Louis in the Ozarks, the retro-inspired rest stop is just 30 miles down the road from the gloriously advertised, mom-and-pop-owned Munger-Moss Motel (can’t miss it). Further afield is a half-scale Stonehenge replica, the Wagon Wheel Motel (the oldest continually operating motel on Route 66), the 66 Drive-In and the World’s Largest Rocking Chair. Yep, this is classic Route 66.
It’s unclear how large the Solar Roadways installation, the first solar roadway panel installation planned for a public right of way, will be. Likely modest to start. And to be clear, MoDOT first plans to test out the technology on a sidewalk at the Route 66 Welcome Center, testing out foot traffic before vehicular traffic. The center itself would be partially powered by the panels.
"This is kind of the first phase, and we hope in the future that we then can move it out into maybe the parking lot, and then maybe into a travel area," Laurel McKean, assistant district engineer with MoDOT, explains to KY3 TV.
Tom Blair, head of MoDOT’s Road to Tomorrow initiative, explains to the Kansas City Star: “If their [Solar Roadway’s] version of the future is realistic, if we can make that happen, then roadways can begin paying for themselves.” Blair notes that the attention-grabbing scheme would “bring history and the future together.”
As for all-important timing, Blair tells the Star that the solar panels, which, in addition to their energy-producing capabilities feature LED lights that render traditional roadway signage and lane-identifying paint obsolete, will ideally be up and running “… by the end of this year, maybe before snow flies.”
And since crowdfunding has worked out so well for Solar Roadways in the past, MoDOT plans to rely on the generosity of the public to raise funds for the pilot project at the Route 66 Welcome Center. “We are going to go out there publicly and on the internet … and ask for money to make our solar roadway pilot project even bigger and better,” explains Blair.
In addition to outfitting a high-traffic rest stop with heavy-duty solar panels that you can drive on, the Road to Tomorrow initiative will also tackle several other pilot projects throughout Missouri including truck platooning, which would harness Bluetooth connectivity between commercial trucks as a means of improving fuel efficiency.
Inset photo: Marcin Wichary/flickr