The debate over solar (freakin’) roadways


solar roadway artist's conceptIn 2009, the U.S. Federal Highway Administration (disclosure: I was once an employee of a Beltway Bandit working for the FHWA… so I know for a fact that they exist), seeking a way to deal with the high cost of building and maintaining the American road system, contracted a husband-and-wife team to develop an idea they’d already been working on, a mass-produceable road tile that would not only provide a suitable surface for vehicles, but actually generate power to create heat and light for itself, and to pump back into the nation’s energy grid.

So began the entertaining saga of Solar Freakin’ Roadways.

Scott and Julie BrusawScott Brusaw, an electrical engineer, and his wife Julie, a psychology counselor, developed their ideas out of existing technology and built them out of largely recycled materials.  Their design was a layered hexagonal tile, topped with tempered glass molded for positive traction, and embedded with groups of solar cells and LED lights.  Circuitry in each tile would allow the solar cells to collect energy, using some of it to power the LED lights, and in cold weather, using some of it to heat the tile, preventing snow and ice collection in all but the worst situations.

The LED lights would be intended to create illuminated lines or shapes on the road surface, replacing the painted lines and objects applied to roadways now.  And any energy that wasn’t put into the lights or heating elements would be pumped into the electrical grid, possibly to provide power to electric vehicles in the future.  The power produced by the tiles would pay back for their production, and one estimate suggests that if every street surface was covered with solar road tiles, they could provide three times the amount of energy used by America today.

solar road tileThe tiles would be mass-produced on demand.  In the event of a new road or breakage on an existing road, a truck with tiles and a few workers would arrive on-site and simply place or replace tiles as needed.  Old or broken tiles could be fully recycled and used to make new tiles.

The tiles could be programmed to respond in various ways to outside signals, pressure, changing environmental and traffic conditions.  They may aid communication with the self-driving cars being developed for our future driving needs, making them even smarter and safer.  In addition, their addition to a road would include an access channel next to the road which would not only link the tile wiring to each other, but provide a channel for power and communications lines, and help channel stormwater runoff, aiding in erosion, water pollution and stormwater management control.

In 2014, the Brusaws delivered a proof-of-concept to the FHWA in the form of a parking lot section employing the tiles.  They are presently crowdfunding an initiative to go from prototype to full production of the tiles, to allow those interested to start deploying them in parking lots, driveways, sidewalks and even outdoor sports spaces to demonstrate their potential to the public.  In honor of their achievement, and to promote the crowdsourcing campaign, they created the highly entertaining Solar Freakin’ Roadways video, to explain the concept to those new to it.  And here is where the controversy comes in.

Apparently, it’s become a thing for people to attack certain crowdfunding programs, and the Solar Roadways initiative was no exception.  As naysayers came out, trying to blow holes in the Brusaws’ concept, one troll even appropriated the Brusaws’ video and tried to use it in an attack video of their own.  Most (if not all) of the claims in the attack ad merely demonstrated the naysayer’s complete lack of knowledge of basic industry, finance, science, electronics and solar cell technology.  Nonetheless, the Brusaws replied to the naysayer video, easily debunking its negative points.

At the time of this writing, the crowdfunding campaign has already earned more than twice its original goal.  this is an initiative that could have game-changing potential nationwide, and needs to be seen to its logical conclusion: The replacement of much of our aging and inefficient road infrastructure with a 21st century system that is self-contained, modular, energy-efficient and environmentally sound.

I urge you to check out the Brusaws’ materials, and even to consider their crowdfunding campaign.  I can think of a lot of worse things to spend your money on.

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