Why not? ask Scott and Julie Brusaw, an Idaho couple who advocate a new approach to surfacing roads: replacing the “dumb” asphalt with a system that could generate energy and light for roadways as well as for the electricity grid in general.
The Brusaws’ “Solar Roadways” concept was recently named a $50,000 winner in GE’s Ecomagination Challenge for receiving the highest number of online votes out of 3,200 entries. The GE challenge, aimed at finding ways to “reinvent how energy is produced, distributed and consumed,” will eventually award up to $200 million to inventors, entrepreneurs and businesses with the most promising ideas.
Solar Roadways, says Scott Brusaw, “are basically solar panels that you drive on.” Each panel is made up of three layers: a top layer of translucent, textured and high-strength glass that can support even the heaviest trucks; a middle layer with solar cells and a microprocessor that controls embedded LEDs (light-emitting diodes) for pavement lighting, communications devices and a built-in heating element to melt surface snow and ice; and a bottom layer that distributes the electricity and data generated by the system to the power grid and communications networks.
“Any home or business connected to the Solar Roadway (via a Solar Road Panel driveway or parking lot) receives the power and data signals that the Solar Roadway provides,” the Brusaws’ website explains. “The Solar Roadway becomes an intelligent, self-healing, decentralized (secure) power grid.”
In 2009, Solar Roadways received a contract from the US Federal Highway Administration to build a prototype of a Solar Roadway panel. The company is now moving ahead with plans to test the system in a parking lot setting.
Scott Brusaw estimates the lower 48 US states have nearly 29,000 square miles of roadways, parking lots, driveways, sidewalks, bike paths, playgrounds and other surfaces that could be paved with Solar Roadway panels instead of asphalt. Assuming an average of four hours of peak daytime sun and a solar cell efficiency of 18.5 per cent, that area could in theory generate some 13,961 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, even if the panels can’t be angled for maximum efficiency, according to Solar Roadways.
“According to the Energy Information Administration, the United States (all 50) used just over 4,372 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity in 2003, while the entire world (including the US) used approximately 14,768 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity total,” the company’s website states. “The ‘lower 48’ could produce just about enough electricity to supply the entire world.”