Spending an hour with Scott Brusaw, of Sagle, just might convince you that eliminating the nation’s reliance on fossil fuels is not only possible, but likely.
Brusaw and his wife, Julie, recently won General Electric’s Ecomagination Challenge, an innovation experiment seeking ideas on how to build the “next-generation power grid.”
Their big idea: replace the nation’s roadways with solar panels.
Scott Brusaw has been working on the concept full time for four years, and interest is starting to grow. Last fall, he landed a $100,000 Federal Highway Administration contract to build a prototype. Then he won the people’s choice award in the Ecomagination Challenge, which came with $50,000.
On Friday, a group of Japanese investors will visit his shop to explore the possibility of replacing parking lot surfaces with solar panels.
As wild as it may sound, it’s true.
A 12-foot-square prototype of the solar roadway sits in Brusaw’s nondescript shop east of U.S. Highway 95 on Sagle Road. Research is being conducted at an acclaimed materials research institute at Penn State University on the feasibility of using glass panels for road surfaces. And one of the country’s largest technology consulting firms is displaying 8-inch-square solar roadway panels at its future transportation lab in Virginia.
“We really think it could be a paradigm shift,” Brusaw said. “Doors just seem to keep opening. We hope it will just keep snowballing.”
Brusaw is low-key but intense and extremely optimistic. He’s thought through every aspect of the idea, even calculating how many solar panels it would take to cover the approximately 29,000 square miles of paved surfaces in the lower 48 states. At an April speech in Sacramento, Brusaw said ideas like fluorescent bulbs, carpools and high-mileage cars are important, but “are honestly putting Band-Aids on an open, gaping, gushing wound that is global warming. What we’re offering is a tourniquet.”
Within the solar roadway’s makeup, power lines would be embedded along the shoulder, giving utility companies easy access for repairs and upgrades. Solar cells, LED lights and heating elements would be hermetically sealed between thick layers of textured glass that would become the new road surface.
Additional electronics would be sealed beneath the glass panels. The panels would generate enough heat to eliminate the need to clear snow. The embedded rows of LED lights would be able to spell out traffic warnings or create a built-in flare system for accidents. The roadways would also include a system of pipes to capture storm water and direct it to filtration systems so the water could be reused.
If all the roads in the lower 48 states were replaced with solar panels, Brusaw said, they would produce three times more power than this country has ever used annually.
“Using the roads as a means to collect energy, I think that will go,” said Edwin Schmeckpeper, a civil engineering professor at Norwich University in Vermont who researched structural highway loads for Brusaw, designing some potential bases to support the glass panels. “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.”
It’s a tall order, but Brusaw is dreaming that big. Replacing all the roads with solar panels, he said, would require building five billion panels, demanding two factories in every state. It would generate 2.5 million jobs over 10 years, he said, and that doesn’t include the maintenance and installation or the manufacturing of the glass, LED lights and other components.
He also envisions the solar roadways connecting to charging stations for electric vehicles, making their use more feasible. Electric vehicles are limited by their range, due to the lack of charging stations, he said. If, for example, charging stations could be attached to the solar roadways in fast-food parking lots, that problem would disappear.
“This is the beginning of the end of fossil fuels, we hope,” he said.
To go into production, Brusaw said he needs $50 million, and he might just get it. Solar Roadways won the first round of the Ecomagination Challenge, a people’s choice award, garnering more than 74,000 votes from a contest that drew more than 3,500 ideas. In the next phase, five more prizes of $100,000 will be awarded and announcements will be made Nov. 16 of which projects will receive up to $200 million in investment funding.
The biggest challenge to making Solar Roadways a reality is twofold, Brusaw said: building glass panels strong enough to withstand the weight of 18-wheelers and texturing the glass to create enough friction for rubber tires.
“Scott put a new stake in the ground, a new idea people are talking about,” said Dr. Carlo Pantano, director of Penn State’s Materials Research Institute. “I believe new materials and new energy ideas will come out of it. Whether they’re solar roadways or not is a different question in my mind.”
Still, Brusaw is convinced any challenges can be addressed. He’s applying for a second round of funding from the Federal Highway Administration, which could result in a $750,000 contract to explore placing the solar panels in parking lots. He envisions first testing them in parking lots, then residential areas, then moving to the roadways.