Paving U.S. roadways with solar panels could wean the nation off of coal-fired power plants and provide other benefits, too, says a North Idaho electrical engineer.
Scott Brusaw has spent 5 ½ years working on the concept of “intelligent pavement” that generates electricity, acts like a power grid and even melts snow and ice.
This week, his company, Solar Roadways Inc., received a $750,000 research contract from the Federal Highway Administration for a smaller-scale project that could serve as a first step: a solar parking lot.
Brusaw will install the solar panels outside his electronics lab near Sandpoint. Each of the 12-foot-square panels will produce about 7.6 kilowatt hours of electricity daily. Four of the panels would supply a typical household’s electrical needs.
“We’ll do our own parking lot first,” Brusaw said, “so we can monitor it 24/7, get all our data … and start seeing how it holds up under all kinds of load tests.”
Parking lots are a good test site for the solar panels, because the vehicle traffic is lightweight and slow-moving. Brusaw also envisions the solar panels in driveways, patios, playgrounds and residential streets – anything with a hard surface.
“The ultimate goal is the nation’s highways,” he said. “That is what we will probably do last.”
Brusaw had kicked around the idea of power-producing roadways for years. After the 2006 documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” drew public attention to global warming, Brusaw’s wife, Julie, encouraged him to quit his job as a contract electrical engineer and “see if anyone was interested in our idea,” he said.
Since then, Brusaw’s work has attracted international attention. Last year, Solar Roadways was a winner in General Electric’s Ecomagination Challenge, which solicited ideas for building the “next generation power grid.” Film crews from Japan, Korea and Canada have visited Brusaw’s lab.
In 2009, the Federal Highway Administration awarded Solar Roadways a $100,000 contract to build the first solar panel prototypes. Brusaw said the latest, two-year contract will help advance the prototype to the point where his company could begin attracting investors for future commercial production. It will also help with production cost estimates.
“Everyone is interested, but wants to know how you’re going to do this,” he said. “It sounds great on paper, but there are a lot of engineering challenges.”
Manufacturing textured glass strong enough to drive on is one of them. Solar Roadways has been working with the materials research institute at Penn State University on the project.
Later this month, Brusaw and his wife will head to Vancouver, B.C., to talk to a glass manufacturer that ships glass sidewalks to New York City. Glass sidewalks are used in places such as Madison Square Garden, where underground lights illuminate the sidewalks.
The panels will contain solar cells, LED lights and electronics, hermetically sealed between layers of textured glass. The panels generate enough heat to melt snow and defrost ice. LED lights would be able to spell out traffic warnings or light up crosswalks at night.
Solar roadways could benefit the drivers of electric cars by providing charging stations. Brusaw said the panels’ smart-grid component could even allow them to communicate with electric cars, alerting drivers to upcoming obstacles such as accidents or deer in the roads.
According to Brusaw’s calculations, installing solar panels in the approximately 28,000 miles of paved surfaces in the lower 48 states would generate about three times more electricity than U.S. citizens use each year.
“Your parking lot could power your building,” he said.