Follow the Yellow (Solar Panel) Road


By Amy Gleich for

It's time for American roads to pull their own weight. Sure, we drive on them every day, enabling us to travel to practically every part of the country -- but is that enough?

What if roads could also collect massive amounts of energy?

That's the idea behind the sun-harvesting technology being proposed by a company called "Solar Roadways." According to the company's YouTube video, it's a technology that replaces all "roadways, parking lots, sidewalks, driveways, tarmacs, bike paths and outdoor recreation surfaces (i.e. basketball courts) with solar panels." The company claims that covering every road in America with these panels would generate three times as much energy as the country uses.

It's a pretty big claim, but one that almost 50,000 people have bought into so far, with $2.2 million of their dollars through the company's crowd-funding Indiegogo page.

Many of their claims seem way too good to be true; listening to the video, you'd think that Solar Roadways’ idea could save the world. But let’s not rush to judgment before considering the scientific facts surrounding what the company calls, "solar freakin' roadways!"

Claim: Solar Roadways' "intelligent" hexagonal panels would be replaced one at a time if damaged or malfunctioning and would put an end to boring, lifeless panels that just "sit there."

Actually, these panels would "just sit there." As climatologist and former NASA scientist Dr. Roy Spencer points out on his blog, "You can’t point the roadway to track the sun, to improve energy generation efficiency." Many industrial solar panels are designed to move with the sun as it travels through the sky - tilting in the appropriate direction throughout the day. Solar Roadway's panels' inability to tilt would cause them to lose efficiency and value. Free-standing panels are much more mobile, plus, it's a lot easier to mend a broken panel on a rooftop or in a field rather than underneath a busy highway. There's also a reason that highways aren't made out of individual asphalt panels: millions of tires passing over these tiles each day will eventually cause them to come loose.

Claim: The panels lie beneath a revolutionary tempered glass material that is covered in small hexagonal nodes that will help with traction, while still allowing sun to penetrate to the collection surface.

OK, this might just be me, but the hexagonal nodes seem like they'd be really bumpy to drive over. Also, it's hard to understand why placing the panels beneath millions of two-ton vehicles would be preferable to, say, placing them on rooftops. And, as Spencer points out, the panels are going to get filthy, which will cut down on their light-collecting capabilities. How often will these panels have to be cleaned to stay functional?

Claim: The panels will keep themselves a few degrees above freezing, thereby melting snow and eliminating icy roads and the need to ever shovel your driveway again.

I can't see how this would work unless the panels continuously keep themselves above freezing. The minute they're covered in snow, how are they going to collect sunlight? Spencer makes a great point about this claim, as well: " A dark surface [i.e., asphalt] heated by the sun converts essentially all of the absorbed sunlight into heat energy…which is what is needed to melt snow. If you instead siphon off some of the absorbed solar energy in the form of electricity, there is actually LESS heat energy to melt snow!"

Claim: Solar parking lots are a great idea.

In another post, Spencer points out the fact that solar-collecting parking lots aren't a great idea, because the parked cars will actually shade the panels. For my money, I'd rather see shade-producing structures with solar panels on top.

Claim: This would be the end of repainting lane lines because the panels include LED lights that would create the lane lines, parking spaces, warning messages - anything their programmers wanted.

Why stop there? They could entertain commuters stuck in traffic with fun pictures and inspirational messages.

OK, so LED lights would look pretty cool, but as an article in Mother Nature Network points out, operating lights constantly in every parking lot and on every road would definitely add to the cost. Plus, every added complexity also adds another aspect that will need maintenance. Electrical engineer David Forbes puts it in perspective: "Do you know the only electronic thing that's more expensive per square foot than solar cells? Yup, you guessed it: LED signage."

Claim: "With LED lights everywhere it's going to look like "freakin' Tron out there, but real because it's the real world!"

What? That's some iron clad logic. So, any idea you can imagine can be real, because it's the real world. Don't think about that statement too much -- it will give you a headache. Plus, living in the world of Tron seems more scary than fun.

Claim: These roads will do more than just collect solar energy; they also have two channels running concurrently alongside: one to house all of the power lines, data lines, fiber optics, and high-speed internet, completely eliminating the need for above-ground lines, and another to collect and transport rainwater and melted snow to processing facilities, "decreasing the amount of pollution that enters our soil, lakes, rivers and oceans." Not to mention, capturing that much more useable water.

I hate looking at power lines as much as anyone else does, but this would be an absolutely monumental undertaking. In the current scope, cost estimates for doing this are about $56 trillion. Not only are we ripping up and replacing every road in America, but we're also going to re-route almost every other utility along with it?

Claim: the panels were invented in 2006 by "engineering couple Julie and Scott Brusaw - two of the sweetest people in the world who met when they were three and four years old."

Are you ready to give them your money yet? Actually, she's not an engineer - according to their Indiegogo page, she's a “counselor in private practice.” He is an electrical engineer, but as Spencer says, he "doesn't see how anyone with an engineering background could have seriously entertained the idea."

Mother Nature Network sums it up nicely when they say that the panels will cost "more money, produce less electricity at a higher cost, and introduce major new complexities into an already complex transportation system." If you're still really excited about this idea, here's a great video that breaks down each claim and explains why this futuristic undertaking is much more science fiction than fact.

An article also cuts to the chase: the Brusaws basically have a really cool hobby that may or may not lead to any type of feasible new technology. The greatest line of the video that perfectly illustrates how vaguely they explain that technology: "Are we being led to believe that this thing is some sort of thing? Yes."

I think that says it all.

This article was originally published on

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The NASDAQ OMX Group, Inc.

This article appears in: Investing , Commodities , Technology , Travel and Lifestyle

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