The American Highway: a New Source of Solar Energy

Highways paved with solar panels could be the innovative solution to the USA's energy needs.

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Route 66 crosses 3,940 km of the continental USA, stretching from California to Illinois, and for one ambitious startup, this famous road is an ideal source of clean energy.

Source: Solar Roadways
Source: Solar Roadways

Based in Idaho, Solar Roadways was founded in 2006 by husband and wife team Julie and Scott Brusaw, who have spent more than a decade working on technology that replaces traditional carriageway surfaces with solar panels.

Their project involves paving a section of the highway, once dubbed ‘the main street of America’, with these large, thick hexagon-shaped installations, built to hold up under all weather, and strong enough to handle a load capacity of 110,000 kg.

Amongst the solar panels’ innovative features is their capability to heat a road to keep its surface free of ice and snow.

The location for the initiative is near the Route 66 Welcome Centre in Conway, Missouri and the project is supported by the state’s Department of Transportation.

Solar Roadways believe their technology is sturdy, durable, efficient, and they foresee the application as a smart grid (an electricity supply network that can sensor usage and respond to needs as required).

Built to last an estimated 20 years, the panels are intended to duplicate the performance characteristics of highway asphalt, concerning being able to maintain traction for any number of vehicles and sustain high-impact incidence.

Prototype panels have the texture to stop a vehicle travelling at 129 kms an hour on a wet surface within an acceptable distance. Unlike asphalt or bitumen, the panels do not soften under high temperature.

The Brusaws are convinced that Solar Roadways is the ideal solution to the energy needs of the USA. If rolled out across the country in all possible configurations from roads to exterior parking lots, they believe that the panels would create 13,385 billion kWh of electricity – far more than the country uses in a year.

Solar Roadways’ solar panels

Estimates of how much energy a single panel generates is contingent on a number of factors including the season of the year, actual geographic location, and microclimatic factors.

The stakeholders hope to realise funding of the project with a combination of government grants and crowdsourcing.

The technology, which has been criticised as expensive and a poor performer compared to other solar technologies, has a brief but notable recent history.

In 2014, a 70 metre ‘solar’ bike path became operable in The Netherlands and reports indicate that it has successfully generated 3,000 kWh in six months.

In February, the French government announced a plan to power street lighting for a township 5,000 using solar panel paving technology laid out over 1 km of road.

This would be the pilot project that would ultimately see 1,000 km of the country’s roads using the technology over the next five years.