Here Comes the Sun-Powered Infrastructure
Solar Equipment Is Becoming More Common on the Road—One Day It May Even Be the Road
By Karl Vilacoba
As a childhood car nut, Scott Brusaw dreamed of a world paved with “electric roads,” often drawing highways with power-supplying slots down the middle like the popular toy racetrack sets. Brusaw never shook the idea, even after he grew up and his thoughts turned to a more grown-up issue—climate change. In 2006, the scientific curiosities of his youth and adult years were married thanks to his wife, Julie, who knew Brusaw back in his days as a kid sci-fi artist.
Scott Brusaw stands on a 12-by-12-foot prototype of the Solar Roadway, recently completed at his Sagle, Idaho, lab.
“One day Julie was out there gardening and she says, ‘Couldn’t you make your electric roads out of solar panels?’ And I laughed at first and thought, you couldn’t drive over a solar panel. You’d crush it,” Brusaw said. “But then we started batting the idea back and forth and thinking if you made a structurally engineered case that could withstand heavy loads and semi-trucks, you could put anything inside it—including solar cells.”
With the help of a $100,000 U.S. Department of Transportation grant, the Brusaws’ Sagle, Idaho-based company, Solar Roadways, recently completed a 12-by-12-foot prototype. It’s a small start to what they hope will one day make a significant impact on the nation’s energy policies.
From game-changing to subtle, businesses and entrepreneurs across the U.S. are developing transportation infrastructure that relies on solar power rather than the grid. Because the products are expensive, and convincing early adopters to try them can be difficult, many will never experience their moment in the sun commercially. But some inventors, like Brusaw, may see their childhood dreams come true.
So what exactly would an “electric road” do? For starters, it could lessen America’s dependence on foreign oil, help preserve the environment, revolutionize driver safety and provide a wealth of intelligent transportation systems (ITS) capabilities, according to Brusaw.
This artist's rendering offers a glimpse of Solar Roadways founders Scott and Julie Brusaw's vision of the future--a highway system paved with solar panels.
The Solar Roadways design has three layers—a super-hard, translucent surface; a center layer of electronics, solar cells and light-emitting diodes (LEDs); and a base plate layer that distributes power and data. The electricity generated by Solar Roadways could be fed into the grid, power nearby buildings or used to recharge electric cars. At night, LED road stripes would light up to guide motorists.
Brusaw envisions a number of “smart” functions for these roads. Electronic components might record data like traffic volume and speeds and wirelessly transmit it to services that aggregate such information to produce traffic reports. Squares in crosswalks could help alert motorists to pedestrians with pressure sensors that light up beneath their feet, not unlike the sidewalk in Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” video. The same concept could be applied to highways, with the lights indicating where animals recently crossed, tipping off drivers to the potential hazard ahead....