The streets of Sandpoint may soon lead to an energy revolution.
The city is on track to be the first to replace a traditional road surface with super-strong, textured glass panels that harness solar power.
The 1-inch-thick panels developed by Scott and Julie Brusaw of Sagle, Idaho, will melt snow and ice, power LED lights embedded in the roadway and generate electricity. The city is getting ready to apply for a grant from the Federal Highway Administration to use the technology in a test project downtown.
“We want to do a sidewalk and a driving section,” City Engineer Kody Van Dyk said. “That way we can demonstrate which one works best, which one has best opportunity for viability, and see what the constructability issues are.”
The Brusaws recently built a small parking pad next to their workshop using 108 of the hexagon-shaped panels. The pad remained free of snow and ice through the North Idaho winter, said Scott Brusaw, an electrical engineer. The couple also have submitted prototype panels for strength and endurance testing.
“We know how to make it now, so we need to gear up for manufacturing and start making these things,” he said.
Brusaw envisions beginning with a small manufacturing operation in Sandpoint within the year, then opening a larger plant in Coeur d’Alene or Spokane as interest in the product grows.
“We’ve got people waiting to order these things. And once we get it perfected … it will be time to open that big plant,” he said. “I’ve got the feeling we’re just going to get nailed with orders left and right.”
Next week the couple will begin raising money through the crowd-funding site Indiegogo.com to launch the manufacturing phase. Their company, Solar Roadways, is a private corporation.
The Brusaws built the solar parking lot at their home with a $750,000 grant from the Federal Highway Administration. The panels collect solar energy, which is converted into electricity that operates heaters and lights under the glass, with power to spare.
“In the summertime that will take me off grid; it will spin the meter backwards,” Brusaw said.
One day, he said, businesses will be able to generate all the power they need from parking lots covered in the high-strength solar panels, each of which covers about 4 square feet and weighs 110 pounds.
“Whatever parking lot you have would feed the building,” Brusaw explained, with excess electricity available to sell to utilities to help meet renewable energy mandates.
The Brusaws believe their technology can transform U.S. highways and cityscapes into sprawling networks of energy generation and also provide surfaces that are durable, safe and less expensive to maintain than concrete and asphalt.
Van Dyk said the city is looking at areas with good solar exposure and public visibility. One such spot is Cedar Street between Third and Fourth avenues, near Bonner General Hospital. That section is being redeveloped now, he said.
Another promising spot is the parking lot at City Beach on Lake Pend Oreille, he said.
“We’ll do a fairly large project,” likely needing thousands of the panels, Van Dyk said. “So it’s going to mean they’re going to have to ramp up to be able to manufacture something.”
The power generated may be used to operate streetlights, and the LED lights under the glass might illuminate crosswalks with the press of a button, he said.
The city is eager to learn if the experimental surface will be less expensive to maintain. Snow removal, reapplying lane stripes and filling potholes all may go away.
“Those are exactly the things we want to test in the demonstration project – find out what kinds of savings there are in road costs and maintenance costs,” Van Dyk said.
The city also is talking with Amtrak about using the panels to keep snow off the platform of its Sandpoint depot, which will be refurbished starting this year. That would eliminate the need to pay a flagger to watch over manual snow removal, Van Dyk said.
“So it could be a huge cost savings for Amtrak,” he said.
Brusaw said he looks forward to working on the Sandpoint demonstration.
“We want the first projects to be right in our own backyard,” he said.
He also has talked about potential uses of the solar panels with NASA, local utilities and retail chains.
For now, he’s happy he can look out his window at the panels in action.
“After all these years of work, I can finally see it,” he said.