Bellwethr Magazine

Solar Boulevard

Alternative-energy expert Neal Abrams talks about the viability of solar roadways.

WORDS BY Kassie Brabaw

Imagine a world where street lines light up with LED lights, snow melts away as soon as it touches the pavement, and all of our energy comes from solar panel-covered roads. It’s a world Scott and Julie Brusaw dream of every day. The couple founded a company called Solar Roadways that aims to replace every road with heated solar panels, complete with LED lights. Though the Brusaws previously have received government grants supporting their project and held one of the most successful Indiegogo campaigns to date—raising more than $2 million in less than two months—many scientists believe Solar Roadways won’t be anything more than science fiction. Neal Abrams, an associate chemistry professor who researches alternative energies at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, explains why.

Bellwethr: Based on the information you have about the project, what makes putting solar panels in the road better or different from putting them on rooftops?

Abrams: I am highly doubtful that these are very effective solar panels in terms of their efficiency as compared to a rooftop module. Each city could just cover their rooftops in electricity, and they would have enough electricity for the whole city, with the exception of New York City — there’s too many people in buildings to support rooftop installations. But there are other ways to go about going all-solar than just roadways.

In your opinion, do you think it would be feasible financially?

That is a great question, the same one I asked myself. The video does not allude to payback times. But I am doubtful that there will be a high-quality payback or shortened payback with respect to just the solar electricity that’s produced. I think payback is going to have a multifaceted approach. The fact that they’re multifunctional is a strong piece in terms of being able to make them a viable installation.

If it were affordable, would installing these solar panels in roads solve at least the United States’ energy problems?

It’s all dependent on the efficiency of the panels. Like any technology, it’s not to be a single source. In a city, your roadways aren’t exposed during the days because they’re always being driven over. In your empty roads, say the Midwest, you don’t have a lot of cars going over them, and it might be very sunny. But you also have no way to deliver the electricity you’re producing unless it’s going to be self-fulfilled — the electricity that’s produced puts the lines on the road. So, I don’t foresee it solving an energy problem. It could be partial contributor, but it’s not going to be a single solution.

What else should we consider?

I think it can tie into the system really well, into the overall electrical grid system. But at this point, I’m a little bit skeptical of the claim that it’s going to be a solar roadway, so to speak. I’m very much a pessimist. I think it’s a really neat idea, though. I’m a solar person and … the solar part doesn’t actually get me all fired up. It’s the other pieces, the LED lighting and the heating, that seem most exciting to me.

Photos from Solar Roadways.

Solar Roadways' heated solar panels. PHOTO BY SOLAR ROADWAYS.
Solar Roadways' heated solar panels. PHOTO BY SOLAR ROADWAYS.
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