Written by James Hinton
We’re all aware that America’s infrastructure is in trouble and needs some serious restoration work done ASAP. Shoot, you’re on a website that has that fact in the title. I somehow doubt you’re here because you think things are just fine. I don’t need to convince you that we have an urgent problem.
Instead, I am here to spark a conversation about a potential solution to two of the problems. In my opinion it’s a pretty sweet deal as it is one solution that fixes two issues. I don’t know about you, but when I’m shopping around I’m a sucker for two for one deals so this tickles my fancy nicely. The problems are our aging roadways and power grid. The solution, potentially, is solar freakin’ roadways.
Let me add some caps there. Maybe a video. Solar Freakin’ Roadways.
Okay, so what are the two problems we are solving? The Infra Blog already has some good articles detailing them, such as this one by Deborah Wince-Smith describing why our failing roadways are harming our economy as well as endangering our populace, or this one by Climate Central describing how our centralized and aging power grid is increasingly vulnerable to climate change. All I need to do is summarize their conclusions. Our roads, power lines, and power production are becoming dangerously inadequate.
A number of potential solutions to these issues have been proposed over time. I’ve taken a look at a number of them as a keen observer, but none have been quite so ingenious, in my not so honest opinion, as Scott Brusaw’s idea. Rather than attempting to find one set of solutions for our aging roadways, and a second set for our vulnerable power grid, Scott has proposed a way to take care of both at once. More, he hasn’t just proposed it, he’s built it.
The idea is to create new road surfaces that generate electrical power locally, ignore the weather, are easily maintained, are rated to handle the heaviest traffic loads we ever allow on our roads, and are green to boot. He does this by creating hexagonal solar panels covered in glass, then lays them down over a concrete roadbed. The hexagonal shape allows the roads to bend, twist, and fold along with the landscape. The size of the panels makes for fast repairs to damaged road surfaces (It’s a plug and four bolts. How long does that take, really?) The fact that they generate their own electricity means that they can provide local power to any buildings alongside of them, and also that a break anywhere in the system will not result in blackouts. And they are able to shrug off even the worst of weather conditions while maintaining a safe driving surface for emergency vehicles.
It’s like a smart grid you can drive a tank on. No, seriously. When he was a Marine Steve worked with tanks. He knows how heavy they are, so he designed his panels to take the weight. All while generating and distributing that electrical power we need as a nation.
So let’s get to practicals. The theory sounds great, but what are the actual numbers. How will this actually solve our infrastructure issues? Well, we have a little more than 30k square miles of surface area tied up in roads, parking lots, sidewalks, etc. If we covered those in solar powers that are already commercially available, those surfaces would generate 13.3B KwH of electricity. And that’s with low numbers based on “less sunny” areas along the Canadian border.
In 2009 the U.S. used 3.7B KwH of electricity. That means such roads would generate more than 3.5 times as much electricity as needed. We could completely replace the entire antiquated power grid we currently have. No more down lines from ice storms. No more coal powered plants necessitating miles of ore cars clogging our rail systems or spewing CO2 into the air. Just nice, solid, smart grid roads that provide what is needed where it is needed.
Edwin Schmeckpeper, a civil engineering instructor at Norwich University, researched the ability of Brusaw’s road surfaces to bear heavy loads. He expressed optimism for the project to interviewer Alison Boggs. “Using the roads as a means to collect energy, I think that will go,” he stated. “Not necessarily all roads, but I think some roads, because it’s a large flat surface that’s collecting solar energy that can be tapped.”
Meanwhile we have roads that eliminate much of the maintenance needs of traditional roads. No more paying a construction company for six month long projects to repave surface roads every few years, blocking traffic and diverting funds. Instead maintenance can be handled on an as needed basis, with one man with a truck spending ten minutes replacing a single panel before moving on to the next one miles away.
More, current roadways are severely limited in their ability to generate income. Aside from tollways, roads are only able to generate funds through use permits for commercial vehicles. However, a state transportation department can work with public utilities companies to sell the power generated, using the funds generated to maintain or replace America’s crumbling bridges and tunnels.
This isn’t to say that solar power generating roadways are a perfect solution. Scott hasn’t tackled the issue of storing power generated during the day for use during the night, when solar panels have nothing to work with. Further, while such roadways would wind up paying for themselves and fund further infrastructure upgrades in the future, the costs of initial installation throughout the U.S. could easily rival anything done during the New Deal’s creation of our original power grid and Eisenhower’s Insterstate System. Where the funds are to come from initially is a big, high dollar question. And, of course, while a project to shift our current roadways and power systems over to solar roadways would create new jobs and business opportunities for many, some current industries would likely face very lean times with the shift away from fossil fuel based power and road surfaces.
Still, the possibility of killing two infrastructure birds with one solar powered stone cannot be ignored. Our roads are crumbling beneath us with every mile we drive, our power failing with each storm. If the unanswered questions can be tackled it really behooves us to upgrade our infrastructure with Solar Freakin’ Roadways.
James Hinton is a lifelong learner and army veteran. The son of an engineer, he keeps a close eye on the solutions engineering is developing for future growth.