'It slices! It dices! ..."
Watch the seven-minute Solar Roadways video (below) — you may have already, since it went viral on social media and generated 17 million-plus views — and you'll feel like you're being pitched the renewable-energy equivalent of the Veg-O-Matic.
They're solar panels — as roadway, driveway or walkway surfaces! They light up with programmable LEDs, for safety and "lane-scape" design — "It'll look like freakin' Tron out there," boasts the narrator. They'll generate their own energy for all our needs, plus enough to melt snow in winter, saving removal money and allowing for safer bike and motorcycle riding year-round. They'll channel water for landscape purposes, use recycled materials, feature a fiber-optic viaduct that eliminates utility poles, protect national security via a decentralized smart grid ... wait, you mean they don't make Julienne fries?
Still, the pitch has made a lot of crowd-funding investors squeal with delight, more than doubling a $1 million goal on Indiegogo and earning the Sandpoint, Idaho-based pioneers an invite to the inaugural Maker Faire at the White House in June. Prior to that they'd earned a two-phase Federal Highway Administration grant and several prestigious prizes.
It's clear that everyone loves Solar Roadways. Well, except for Sydney, Australia-based Electronics Engineering Video Blog host David L. Jones, producer of "Solar Roadways are Bullshit!" and other lengthy debunking segments. A veteran tech geek, Jones calls the project a "complete nonstarter," pulling out his dry-erase board and questioning everything from dirt and grime blocking light input to energy-storage issues and structural integrity. Despite a "numbers" page on SR's website, Jones says there's no convincing data shown.
But, "Solar freakin' roadways!" People love these happy, hexagonal little lifesavers. A Dutch group's apparently working on something similar, and when the Europeans play copycat, you know you're on to something. With SR set to start laying sidewalks and private driveways to get their bearings, one day we'll surely see some solar roadways on I-25 or Platte Avenue, especially since we're in one of the sunnier spots in the country. Right?
SR is busy hiring engineers, fulfilling Indiegogo perks and tooling up, and is not accepting further media queries until next spring. So to take a quick look beyond the infomercial, we asked some folks in the local business of roadway infrastructure to do a bit of daydreaming with us.
Tackling one aspect of Jones' criticism, we spoke with Joe Kaul of Golden-based Kaul Corporation, the inventor of water-permeable "filter pavement" (filterpave.com), who aided a Denver recycling plant in creating a test strip of glass-infused pavement a few years ago ("One love," cover story, April 16, 2009). That one didn't hold up well, he says, but another re-engineered parking lot installed in 2010 at Golden's National Renewable Laboratory — using between 10 and 20 percent recycled glass in its granite aggregate base — has performed admirably, he says.
Granted, his product is vastly different from a Solar Roadways panel, but he calls working with glass "a challenge, no doubt about that." In his mind, "Durability will be the question ... but it seems like [solar roadways] might have a place, for sure."
And that place will likely only be secured if SR can prove itself in time, convincing governments that they will see a return on investment. In 2013, the Colorado Department of Transportation, which oversees 23,000 lane miles of highways, spent 20 percent ($266 million) of its $1.3 billion budget on maintenance, including the use of 233,720 tons of asphalt and 1.7 million gallons of liquid asphalt.
The Solar Roadways equivalent of a cracked surface, a busted or non-functioning panel, can supposedly be easily removed and replaced. But at what cost? Too early to say.
Capital and coal
And that's what most concerns city streets division manager Corey Farkas. After viewing the SR video, he says such roads "would be really cool ... it'd be awesome to change striping for an event we were having; messaging would be fantastic."
But he's skeptical of SR's repeated claim that such roadways pay for themselves, especially given what's likely to be very expensive capital costs on the front end. It's worth noting that City Council recently had to dip into its emergency fund just to pull $2 million for critical road repairs, particularly ahead of our USA Pro Cycling Challenge stage.
And as many jobs as SR says it'll create, Farkas fears more could be lost: "Most folks who do asphalt," he says, "can't make a microchip."
Thus one ends up in a debate familiar to anyone interested in advancing renewables. (Think of the miners and their families!) To bring a revolutionary overhaul like Solar Roadways to reality, a robust educational and vocational retraining would have to be included.
It's a giant task. But even Farkas won't say it's impossible: "I love innovation, and it got our country to where it is at this point, and I don't want that to stop anytime soon."
Plus, you know ... Solar freakin' roadways! (Which may or may not be bullshit.)