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Stuart Hampton

Solar panel highways — The Yellow Brick Road?

by Stuart Hampton | Dun & Bradstreet Editor

October 1, 2010 | 1 Comment »


When Dorothy wanted to get to the Emerald City she chose the Yellow Brick Road.

Today there is another unusual concept about getting to a better destination. Solar Roads explore the idea of replacing a heat-absorbing and expensive petroleum product (asphalt) as a road surface material with solar panels.

Now, while Hoover’s editors and First Research staff are focused on the current activities and strategies of companies and identifying industry trends, we also try to keep an eye out for breakthrough technologies and “out of the box” ideas. (I’m old enough to remember not only a pre-online world, but a pre-digital, pre-VCR, and pre-personal computer one too. You never know when a new concept will break through, and change the way the world works.)                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   

So before we mock solar roadways as too Utopian, let’s explore the idea. What if instead of building those ribbons of highways with an increasingly expensive fossil fuel (asphalt) which adds heat and pollution to an already overheated and over-polluted environment, we instead paved highways with solar photovoltaic glass? By generating power for nearby offices, homes, street lights, etc., the new “glass highways” would pay for themselves, instead of being a drain on the economy.

Electrical engineer Scott Brusaw was inspired to found (with his wife) the Solar Roadways company after he heard an expert on solar energy (Nate Lewis of Caltech) expound that covering less than 2% of land surface of the Lower 48 states with photovoltaic solar collectors could, in theory, generate enough energy to meet the total power demand of the US.

The Yellow Brick Road of Brusaw’s vision is a highway made of 12-by-12-foot solar panels. Each would produce about 7,600 watt-hours a day from an average of four hours of sunlight. Each one-mile stretch of a four-lane highway could provide enough electricity to service about 500 homes.

It is more than an idea. In 2009 the Solar Roadways company received a $100,000 grant from the Federal Highway Administration to build a solar road panel prototype. The panels have three layers: a Road Surface Layer — which is translucent and high-strength and allows sunlight through to the solar collector cells; an Electronics Layer with a microprocessor board for sensing surface loads and controlling a heating element; and a Base Plate Layer which distributes power to homes and businesses connected to the solar roadway. Brusaw’s company is looking for serious funding and is seeking to win GE‘s Ecomagination Challenge: which offers $200 million for the best ideas on how to build the next-generation power grid using renewable technologies.

Glass roads producing power? Crazy stuff or the obvious future? If the Yellow Brick Road ever gets built, we may still be in Kansas, but we may not be on asphalt anymore.


Picture by Mugley used under a CC-Share Alike license.

Related article: Solar Panel Manufacturing: Elon Musk’s Next Move

It is good idea. But I don’t know if it can be done. When the road gets damaged, it will cost a lot more than to repair the asphalt.

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