Insights & Advice

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A road to the future

 

There is a growing national buzz among scientists and engineers over a driveway in Idaho.  This green-hued stretch of hexagonal tiles of hardened glass in an Idaho suburb represents one prototype idea for revolutionizing the nation’s highways. It could be a road to the future.  

The concept of Scott Brusaw, a down–to-earth, electrical engineer who lives in a rural Idaho community, is to convert America’s broken down highway system into a nationwide network of solar panel highways. In doing so, this solar highway would generate three times the energy used in the U.S. each year while reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 75%.

These new roadways would consist of three layers of individual panels. The top layer would be manufactured of high-strength, textured glass. It would provide better traction for vehicles than concrete or blacktop and is strong enough to support trucks weighing three-to-four times the weight of the 18-wheelers that chew up our road system every day.

Embedded underneath that first layer would be an array of solar cells for gathering and generating energy, as well as a system of LED lights (powered by the sun) that would be able to function as road and warning signs. Finally, a base plate layer would distribute the power as well as provide heat to melt snow and ice on the roads and prevent seepage, a major cause of road destruction on today’s highways.

Does this sound like pie in the sky? Right now, I would say so, but stranger things have become realities in this country. Prior to The Wright Brothers, flying was an unproved technology. So was Brainiac, before the U.S. government proved that computers were possible. In this case, all of the technology involved in a solar highway process is proven and available.

Tempered glass is used in countless products and big companies are already working on creating even stronger glass technologies. Solar cells and panels exist and their costs are rapidly decreasing, while their efficiencies skyrocket. Energy storage and new battery technology is becoming an everyday occurrence and can be found in airplanes, autos and any number of other new products.

As a result, the rollout of such a new road system comes down to cost. In today’s political climate, our highway system is lucky to be just limping along at the present level of funding (see my column “Potholes take center Stage”). Our politicians can’t see beyond the cost of fixing a pothole or two. But that does not mean it will always be this way.

Right now estimates put the cost of one square foot of solar highway at $70, compared with anywhere from $3 to $15 for asphalt or cement, depending on the quality and strength of the road. Given that just in the lower 48 states; we have roughly 29,000 square miles of paved road, the cost of building a solar highway would be in the trillions of dollars. The cost of maintenance is unknown as well and detractors can come up with an array of reasons why solar roads won’t work. But costs will come down over time and as they do, solar roads will look more and more possible, in my opinion.

Remember that twenty years ago, electric cars were considered impossible because the battery to power them would be twice as big as the car and three times as expensive. Fortunately, the Federal government thinks the idea is worth investing $ 1 million or so to encourage more research and feasibility studies. They did the same thing 15 years ago to further oil and gas fracking technology and we all know how that turned out.

 

Posted in A Few Dollars More, Macroeconomics