Skeptical of Solar Roadways?

Yesterday I excitedly posted an article waxing lyrical about a new project to turn roads into solar-panel-covered roads that could generate all the clean energy the US needs if replicated nation-wide.

Solar cycle lane. Artists rendition by Katherine Simons.

Solar cycle lane. Artist’s rendition by Katherine Simons.

Apologising for being cynical, one of my lovely environmentally-conscious friends commented that he didn’t think it was a practical idea, and directed me to this article that dismisses solar roadways as a wild fancy. Well, I think they have a couple of fair points, and a fair few not-so-valid points. Let’s walk through them. 

Shea Gunther, author of the article, helpfully lays out the 4-point crux of his argument here:

• 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.

Okay. Points 1 and 4 can be addressed together:
It’s very obvious that solar roads would cost a crazy amount compared with normal roads. As Gunther lucidly puts it: “What’s more expensive? A blinged-up LED-embedded solar panel or a bucket of asphalt?” Well. No shit, Sherlock. But this is a completely unfair comparison. The solar roads are not just a new shiny expensive road surface. They are delivering clean energy – potentially enough to power a whole country. That means that the real comparison is between admittedly pricey fancy solar tiles VS asphalt, plus a percentage of all the power stations and fossil fuel extraction in the country. That’s the kind of cost benefit analysis that would be more appropriate here. And of course that’s only comparing the economic cost of actually producing energy from coal, oil and gas. If you factor in all the costs of climate change (both present and future) then I think the solar roads start to look like a much better deal.
The fact that the solar roads would need more maintenance than regular roads is probably true unfortunately. Again, this should be looked at as maintenance that doesn’t need to be taken on power stations and oil rigs etc. But the point is: will the level of maintenance required be so great that it disrupts people’s driving to an unacceptable degree? I don’t know about this one. It would have to be tested with several prototype roads. How often do solar panels actually break? You’d think: a lot, after people have driven over them. But the inventors did manage to foresee the little detail that roads are generally used for driving over. The panels are covered in a special kind of protective glass which has been tested by engineers for strength, traction etc and has passed all the tests, being undamaged even by the heaviest trucks.
The point that the road tiles would cost more than normal solar panels is also unfortunately true. The only things I can say is that a) the price will invariably go down as they are produced to scale, and b) when a full cost-benefit analysis is done they very well might turn out to be a great option despite being more expensive than regular panels.

Point 2:
According to their calculations, if all the roads and carparks in the USA were solar roadways, they would generate three times more energy than the whole USA used in 2009. Even if the nation’s energy-guzzling ways has got even more over the top in the last five years, that’s still way more than the whole country uses. How on earth can that not be enough? I’m sorry but whatever the comparison, saying that almost three times the energy demand of the whole country is not enough is crazy. The only way this would be a fair point is if you think they’ve got their numbers wrong. Which is possible I suppose, so why not check out their calculations page and see what you think? However if you are not an electrical engineer, bare in mind that one of the inventors is, and that others have helped him with the design and development.

Point 3:
There is indeed no shortage of rooftop space to mount solar panels, and these kind of panels can be angled so as to catch as much of the sun’s rays as possible, and they don’t need to be covered in glass. Let me just say that I am in total favour of putting solar panels on rooftops, and if I owned a house I would get all over that like humous on a jacket potato. But I guess the thing is, putting solar panels on our roofs requires individuals to saving up and investing in their own renewable energy system. This is a great way to democratise energy generation, and it is happening, but it’s not happening at the speed and scale that we need. Both here in the UK and in the USA, we’re absolutely nowhere near powering the whole country off our solar roofs. Maybe if the government rolled out a scheme were publicly owned panels were erected on all roofs, then we’d be near to that goal. But is that happening right now? No. Maybe what we need is an exciting project that has the potential to solve our energy problem completely, something big and bold that people can get behind. Maybe this is it, maybe it isn’t. But to dismiss the solar roads idea in favour of a different type of renewable energy seems to me to be missing the point. This is still renewable energy, it will still help us solve climate change. If people are getting behind the idea and it starts to look like it could actually happen, then all environmentalists should be supporting it and saying “let’s go!” as loudly as possible.

Artists rendition of what the solar roadways would look like with their programmable LED lights. Art by Sam Cornett.

Artist’s rendition of what the solar roadways would look like with their programmable LED lights. Art by Sam Cornett.

The cost would undoubtedly be huge. There’s no getting away from that. It’s hard to find out an estimate for what this would actually cost, but this article by Inhabitat.com says:

It’s an expensive plan–each panel costs approximately $6,900–but a single four-lane, one-mile road plastered with Solar Road Panels could provide enough power to take 500 homes off-grid.

But where are they getting those figures from? Unfortunately they don’t say. Very bad practise. If they’re right about the cost of one panel, then that’s a hell of a lot. Hopefully the cost will quickly come down. Anyway, we next need to know how many panels are needed for say, one square mile of road. Then we can calculate an estimated cost of a nation-wide project. If you can find that information and make that calculation then please let me know. But we can guess it’ll be billions. A point of concern for sure, but just imagine how many billions of pounds/dollars are currently spent on fossil fuel energy production. There is money around – it just needs to be spent on different things.

My point is: it remains to be seen if this is a feasible idea. Prototypes are now being developed to see if it can work. But what if it can? This is truly an exciting prospect, and one I will be watching with bated breath. And if it doesn’t work out: we still have all the other ways of generating renewable energy at our disposal.

But it would be pretty damn cool if we could do it this way.

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