Science Fiction or Future Fact?

by Erin Hiatt

The Indiegogo.com headline is definitely an attention grabber: “Solar panels that you can drive, park, and walk on. They melt snow and … cut greenhouse gases by 75 percent!”

That’s the lead-in for the “Solar Roadways” campaign, and it sounds like it’s straight out of science-fiction fantasy. But it is, by far, the largest grossing campaign in Indiegogo’s history, closing at $2.2 million, more than 220 percent of the company’s $1 million goal. With more than 48,000 donors from all 50 states and around the world, the idea is clearly one that has mass appeal.

Interstate at Dusk

The Indiegogo campaign page (indiegogo.com/projects/solar-roadways) says that “Solar Roadways is a modular paving system of solar panels that can be installed on roads, parking lots, driveways, sidewalks, etc., literally any surface under the sun. They pay for themselves primarily through the generation of electricity, which can power homes and business connected via driveways and parking lots. A nationwide system could produce more clean renewable energy than a country uses as a whole.”

Scott and Julie Brusaw, based in Sandpoint, Idaho, are the co-inventors and co-founders of Solar Roadways, and their relationship goes back to early childhood when Julie’s mom babysat the young Scott.

glass

Scott is an electrical engineer who has always had “electric roads” on the brain. He even has a childhood drawing depicting his vision of a solar roadway. Julie took a different path, studying psychology, and her voice has been very inspiring to Scott, who says that Julie is the one “thinking outside the box. She’ll be sitting in a meeting with all these engineers and she’ll say ‘What about this?’ and we all think, ‘Huh, that’s a great idea.’”

But it was former Vice-President Al Gore’s movie “An Inconvenient Truth” that really set Scott thinking. Julie had always been environmentally conscious but it was after seeing that documentary that Scott became more than another guy who recycles his aluminum cans. He was a true believer in green technology, a convert who wanted to create some meaningful change.


“The solar panels can withstand 250,000 pounds of weight, which is four times the legal weight of a semi-trailer truck and have traction to stop a vehicle moving up to 80 miles per hour,” Scott says. “They won’t break or crack if something crashes on them. The base layers are made of 10-percent recycled glass.”


Scott started tinkering with his initial prototypes and a lot of people took notice, including policy makers within the federal government. Avid fans of the Brusaws, who have a knack for snappy YouTube videos, include George Takei, aka Sulu, of the original Star Trek series fame.

The federal government reacted first. In 2009, Solar Roadways received a $100,000 Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant from the Department of Transportation, then in 2011 another SBIR grant of $750,000, to develop and build a solar parking lot.

Parking lot west

panels only

Earlier this year, a fan made a video called “Solar Freaking Roadways” and posted it to YouTube. To say it went viral is an understatement. It’s had around 17 million views and counting. Then George Takei chimed in.

Takei has honed a very popular online presence since moving on from his Hollywood days, collecting over 1.2 million Twitter and 7 million-plus Facebook followers. Takei caught wind of the “Solar Freaking Roadway” video and composed the tweet heard ‘round the world: “I like the sound of that. Worth a look. Dare to dream, I say.”

Literally overnight the Brusaw’s met their $1 million goal on Indiegogo. Scott, an admitted Star Trek fan, was thrilled with Takei’s attention, laughing, “How can you be an electrical engineer and not be a Star Trek fan?”

The prototype of a solar roadway that Scott is working on is made up of three layers:

The first is the road surface layer. It is an incredibly strong, bulletproof-type glass. It provides traction yet is still translucent enough to pass sunlight to the solar cells underneath. There are also LED lights and a heating element to melt snow. This layer must be weatherproof to protect the electronics. It is also responsible for redirecting sunlight to hit the solar panels at appropriate angles.

The second is the electronics layer. This houses a microprocessor board for sensing loads on the surface and controlling the heating element. It also controls communications, lighting, etc. The plan is to have a communications device every 12 feet, so it can be “intelligent” and change the LED pattern to relay messages to drivers.

The third is the base plate layer, and this distributes the collected solar power as well as data signals to all the homes and businesses connected to the roadway.

“The solar panels can withstand 250,000 pounds of weight, which is four times the legal weight of a semi-trailer truck and have traction to stop a vehicle moving up to 80 miles per hour,” Scott says. “They won’t break or crack if something crashes on them. The base layers are made of 10-percent recycled glass.”Tractor

Scott was also tasked with coming up with a solution for polluted stormwater. Stormwater is an abnormal amount of surface water due to a heavy rain or melting snow. With that drainage comes pesticides and herbicides that we use on our lawns, antifreeze and oil from our driveways, and other toxic substances. This now polluted water goes through our drainage systems and into waterways. Scott is working on a section in the cable corridors for storing, treating, and moving stormwater.

Traffic safety is another part of the concept. Scott explains that “the panels can also detect weight. It doesn’t know what it is, if it’s a person or an animal or a tree branch, but if 200 pounds, for example, steps on a panel then it can send a warning a quarter mile ahead to slow down or be cautious, and that is done within the microprocessor.”

The LED lights in the second layer are the most sensitive, traffic-changing, and to some detractors, most worrisome part of the panels. Scott cited the city of Los Angeles because of its traffic problems, especially during work-time commutes.

“When you have eight lanes of traffic and the four lanes that go away from the city are practically empty and the lanes coming in are completely full, you could change that with the LEDs so in the morning you have six lanes coming into the city and two going out, then vice versa in the afternoon, and that can be done remotely.”

The remote aspect to the LEDs has some people worried. They predict hacking and worst-case scenarios of madness and mayhem should anyone be able to change the lane patterns on dangerous whims.

There are also more general concerns of road workers losing their jobs, light pollution, noise, and the guesstimated astronomical cost, with some critics saying construction of solar roadways throughout the country could cost a whopping $60 trillion.

Brusaw shrugs off these criticisms. He says that displaced workers wouldn’t need advanced degrees to work the electronics, and that workers will be trained to learn the solar roadway system. He says the high cost is an apples-to-oranges comparison scenario. After all, there are no plans to just start tearing up roads around the nation and laying down solar panels.

“We are going to start here in Sandpoint with parking lots, walkways, etc. Then we’ll move onto bigger things, rest areas for example. We won’t go to high traffic roadways until it is absolutely perfect,” he says.

Bike Path

The Brusaws were recently made honorary “Makers” by President Obama for the first-ever White House Maker’s Faire, a presidential forum where tech enthusiasts gather to share ideas. Bill Nye the Science Guy posed for a picture with Scott and Julie. The only thing that might have made that cooler was if Neil DeGrasse Tyson had been in the picture.

Or maybe George Takei for the photobomb.

www.solarroadways.com

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