Solar roadways have gone viral, but will they work?

Montana Highway

By JUSTIN BULL

June 5, 2014

A grassroots campaign to build solar roadways has raised almost $2 million since its launch, far exceeding its original goal. With more than 40,000 individual investors on board, the crowdsourced project to convert roadways into power plants has gone viral.

The project’s goal is to install a system of hexagonal tempered glass tiles embedded with solar panels and light emitting diodes (LEDs) into asphalt roads. These tiles would be connected to a series of sensors making for “smart roads” that could collect energy, warn drivers about hazards, and even melt snow.

Clearly the solar roadway project has people excited. Small investors who don’t spend much time thinking about cost and scalability have flocked to the campaign. But when costs—both upfront and ongoing—are considered, it is no surprise that solar roadways had to appeal to the crowd rather than traditional sources of funding.

After an initial buzz of positive press some have expressed scepticism about viability. There are big questions the project team has yet to answer. How much will it cost to produce a kilometer of road using the technology? How does this compare to traditional road making? And what is the relative cost of solar roadways compared to existing solar panels?

The big problem with solar roadways is cost. First, the project wants to compete with traditional road building where the raw materials (asphalt and gravel) are cheap, and labour and machinery generally drive the cost of building roads. The solar roads project would increase those same costs as roadbeds would have to be built to precise requirements so that the interlocking tiles could be properly deployed.

Solar roadways also want to compete with traditional solar panels. At the moment, most solar panels are built in empty spaces, on rooftops, or above parking lots. If society’s goal is to deploy low-carbon energy, putting solar panels on roofs or over parking lots is by far the cheapest option. Plus, there is no current shortage of roofs or parking lots.

Installing solar panels on roofs and other structures reduces the installation and ongoing maintenance costs. There isn’t an electrical product in existence that doesn’t fail at some point. An interconnected system of solar panels, LED lights, and heating circuits is a maintenance challenge. Put this system under several inches of tempered glass that endures the daily grind of vehicular traffic and you have a maintenance nightmare. Dirt, water and speeding vehicles would compromise the panels and require regular, extensive upkeep.

Clearly, people are yearning for solutions to the energy and climate crisis. But the average investor lacks the skillset to evaluate the proposition at hand. Solar energy is a great idea, no doubt. But a solution that competes with both traditional solar panels and road building techniques is bound to fail. The upfront and ongoing costs would be simply too much.

The fact that the promotional video for “solar FREAKIN’ roadways” closely resembles an infomercial is no surprise. Catchy titles and obnoxious advertising are time-tested methods of separating suckers from their money. And crowdsourcing, unlike traditional investing, imposes no requirements on the recipient and offers investors no legal recourse. So the project team now has $2 million dollars to use as it pleases with no obligations to any investors and a product that, while appealing in theory, has little chance of working in the real world. Solar freakin’ roadways, indeed.



Photo Credit: Mark Hamilton