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Innovation Economy

Bright future for solar roads?

An artist's rendition of downtown Sandpoint, Idaho - Home of Solar Roadways.

Sam Cornett

An artist's rendition of downtown Sandpoint, Idaho - Home of Solar Roadways.

Think about your first time behind the wheel. Plenty has changed about cars since you learned to drive, including GPS systems and the mobile device that shouldn’t distract you. However, the surface you drive on just hasn’t kept up. Asphalt is stuck in the stone age.

An Idaho startup, Solar Roadways, believes that it’s time to change that. Why doesn’t pavement generate power from the sun that beats down on it all day? With LED lights built in, roads could become emergency signs, warning of a wreck around the bend. And an integrated heating element could melt snow and ice, rendering salt and snowplows superfluous.

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Solar Roadways promises all that and more — like no more potholes (or pothole repair crews causing backups.) And the company has attracted an astonishing amount of attention online. One of its videos was viewed more than 16 million times over the last month, and a “crowd-funding” campaign on the site Indiegogo has pulled in more than $2 million.

While the concept clearly catches the imagination, most people who have researched, funded, or tried to roll out solar projects will tell you that surface streets and freeways are probably the last places they would want to deploy solar panels. “This seems like one of the longest putts you could come up with in solar,” says Ian Bowles, an energy investor at Windsail Capital and former energy official in Massachusetts and Washington.

“There’s something really intriguing about it,” says Jim Paull, founder of Stellaris Corp., a North Andover company developing windows that can produce power from the sun. “But the list of practical problems with this are just endless.”

All the skepticism just adds to the outsider cred of Scott and Julie Brusaw, the husband-and-wife team behind Solar Roadways. They’re in northern Idaho, not Silicon Valley. They have no venture capital funding. But they’ve been thinking for more than a decade about the possibility of turning roads into a more positive part of the world’s infrastructure.

Scott Brusaw says that he isn’t sure yet how the cost of building a mile of a solar road or parking lot would compare to a traditional asphalt one. But he emphasizes the layers of cost involved in maintaining asphalt roads: his technology would eliminate line painting and repainting, snow removal, and pothole repair. His hexagonal modules, with photovoltaic cells, heating elements, and LEDs embedded in ruggedized glass, could be removed and replaced by a single maintenance worker, he says.

An artist's rendition of an interstate solar roadway.

Sam Cornett

An artist's rendition of an interstate solar roadway.

With the money he’s raising on Indiegogo, he hopes to hire additional engineers, rent an office, finalize the design, and start manufacturing modules over the winter. Brusaw says that he has spoken with the mayor and public works director of Sandpoint, Idaho, near where he lives, who want the parking lot at the town’s welcome center to be the company’s first installation. “They want to be the first solar road city,” he says.

Still, his team has a lot to prove related to cost, durability, and the realities of maintaining a solar road. Paull observes that solar cells don’t operate well in extreme heat, and that keeping the glass on the surface clean enough to let light penetrate will be a challenge. (Driving 65 miles per hour on glass? Brusaw says a texturized surface would provide traction.)

Highway and public works departments are conservative buyers, adds Bowles, since they are responsible for maintaining roads over the span of decades. He also points out that there are still plenty of rooftops, roadside utility poles, and open brownfield sites that would be more hospitable places for solar panels.

The price of solar panels has dropped 77 percent over the last seven years, says Tonio Buonassisi, the founder of MIT’s Photovoltaic Research Laboratory, and that “invites entrepreneurs to take a fresh look at integrating solar into functional products, including billboards, roof tiles, clothing, accessories, vehicles, and even roads. ”

But, he adds, investors — and hopefully government agencies, too — will evaluate the costs and benefits of those kind of integrated products against plunking more traditional solar arrays atop buildings and on unused land, he says.

It’s hard to ignore 46,000 people opening their wallets to fund a startup like Solar Roadways — they get things like t-shirts and coffee mugs in return for their nondeductible donations — just because they believe in its vision. You can read this in one of two ways: either people voting with their credit cards for something they see as a positive societal change, or being ill-informed about what’s plausible, and unaware of the best places to install photovoltaic technology.

If Solar Roadways spends $2 million and gets nowhere, Paull worries that “it could make it more difficult for people to do things like this. It will muddy the waters for other crowdfunding efforts to support good technology.”

I never root against motivated entrepreneurs, even when their ideas seem outlandish. In the world of democratized online fund-raising — just as in the worlds of venture capital, stock exchanges, or government research grants — we’ll see millions of dollars spent that don’t lead to the hoped-for destination.

All of Solar Roadways’ promises, to me, start to sound like a late-night infomercial about one of those kitchen gadgets that does everything. But whatever your take on their vision, perhaps we agree on this: Progress happens when we make bets on a wide range of visions about society’s future.

A prototype of parking lot using solar panels.

A prototype of parking lot using solar panels.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner and on betaboston.com.
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