A revolutionary concept of generating energy from solar panels on our roadways – called smart highways – is coming to Sandpoint thanks to local innovators, Scott and Julie Brusaw, the husband and wife team behind Solar Roadways. Their company is installing their first public prototype for testing in town.
The exciting concept involves installing photovoltaic solar panels in our transportation corridors that would generate power for electric cars and virtually all of nearby infrastructure. The idea promises to create safer roads that warn drivers of oncoming emergency vehicles, traffic as well as pedestrians and animals crossing. Its heating elements would keep roads and walkways free of ice and snow. The tiles are meant for all pathways, including walkways and airport runways. The possibilities Solar Roadways promises keep growing as they could solve some major environmental issues through their sustainable and clean energy product. Once available, manufacturing the product would generate local jobs to serve an international market.
Solar Roadways (solarroadways.com) is arguably one of the few companies in the world developing a smart highway prototype. The idea of installing solar panels in the road was initially a fleeting thought in Julie’s mind. But it was Scott, with a background in engineering, who began to bring the idea to fruition. With the encouragement of some friends, they began their journey of design and innovation and have gathered international attention along the way.
The solar modules are modular, hexagonal, tempered glass tiles each 4.93 square feet in size that are charged by the sun. The tiles are layered with the electronics embedded in between. In a Solar Roadways video, Scott explained that their design is similar to how bullet-proof glass is created in layers. Light-emitting diode (LED) lights embedded in them will replace painted road lines. The lights in the road will change accordingly to provide warning signs and warn when an animal or person is crossing. They can even be applied to sport courts, bike paths and walkways in public parks. Sport courts with the tiles could be programmed to create lines for different games.
Their idea also eliminates the need for power lines and cables. The roads would have two channels which would form a cable corridor. One channel would house electrical cables, data lines, power lines, fiber optic cables and high-speed internet, virtually eliminating power outages from downed power lines. A second channel would transport storm water and melted snow to a treatment facility.
Solar Roadways has generated its share of publicity since 2009 when it was awarded $100,000 Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT). That grant money was used to build a 12-foot by 12-foot prototype installation with a focus on the product’s electronics on the Brusaw’s property. They’ve also gotten publicity from Popular Science Magazine, TEDx, Smithsonian Institution, New York Times, CNN, The Huffington Post, Newsweek, BBC News, Forbes, Popular Mechanics, The Wall Street Journal and Time magazine among a host of other media outlets.
The grant sparked a chain-reaction of media attention. A mention in a documentary titled, “The Prototype” by Your Environmental Road Trip also helped spread their idea even further. They began receiving private donations and soon learned about GE’s Ecomagination contest. They entered and won $50,000. With publicity growing, they were encouraged to keep searching for funding. Around the same time, they again applied for a SBIR grant and this time were awarded $750,000 to continue further development of the glass tiles, the heating element and begin testing plus fund the construction of a solar parking lot.
But the biggest funding has come from the public itself. The Brusaws received an unprecedented $2.27 million in their Indiegogo crowdsourcing venture. The fundraiser also caught the attention of several notable celebrities and earned them an invitation to the White House’s first annual Maker Faire festival of science and innovation.
They’ve received kudos from U.S. Senator Mike Crapo in a video posted on their site. “It’s truly visionary to anticipate how our existing transportation corridors can meet tomorrow’s energy needs. This is exactly the kind of over-the-horizon thinking that has brought Idaho’s own Solar Roadways to national and world prominence. We can all benefit from this public and private partnership which will create jobs and lessen our dependence on fossil fuels while utilizing available resources,” he said.
In 2014, Solar Roadways received a third, two-year grant from the SBIR USDOT grant totaling $750,000. This funding has allowed them to conduct university-testing on the freeze-thaw cycle, perform durability testing and traction testing to show that the glass tiles are strong enough to withstand the wear and tear of commercial vehicles and also safe enough to travel on in inclement weather.
Most recently, Solar Roadways received a $50,000 Idaho Gem Grant from the State Department of Commerce plus a matching $10,000 from the Urban Renewal Agency. The grant funded the installation of a 150-square foot solar surface at Jeff Jones Town Square at Third Avenue and Main Street in downtown Sandpoint. This is the company’s first public project in their research and development to demonstrate the viability of their solar tiles.
Solar Roadways is also conducting preliminary studies for Missouri’s DOT (MoDOT). MoDOT’s Transportation Management Center as part of their Road to Tomorrow Initiative. As part of the project, the state will collect solar data from two conventional solar panels in one of their parking lots. The data will show them how much energy that location will produce. MoDOT would next consider testing the tiles in rest stops along Interstate-70 before installing them on the highway.
“They’ve got 200 miles of I-70 they’d like to put advanced cutting edge technology on. If they were to do the 200 miles of I-70 with our panels – we haven’t calculated how much energy that would be – (it would) probably be enormous and take every business and home along the highway completely off the grid,” Scott said in a news segment. More recently, MoDOT announced testing a segment of Route 66 in Conway, Missouri with the modules.
There are very few other entities in the world matching what Solar Roadways is attempting. In the Netherlands, Studio Roosegaarde is developing their concept of a smart highway using glowing lines. The lines are charged during the day and glow at night. They have installed their prototype on a bike path called the Van Gogh-Roosegaarde bicycle path resembling the artist’s “Starry Night.” In the United Kingdom, a group called Highways England is beginning trials on electric highways. They will have an off-road prototype and will use inductive equipment installed under the roads. And in France, the government is planning to install solar panels on a 600-mile stretch over the next five years. Each smart highway is different but have the goal of safety and renewable energy in mind.
Not all who have learned about Solar Roadways are a fan of the product. Critics have raised concerns over the efficiency, safety, strength and durability. There are questions as to how the panels would store power and deliver it to remote stretches and also how to keep the glass tiles clean and visible. While there will always be skeptics, one thing is certain, the ingenuity of such a multipurpose product is bound to benefit the public and be the roadway to even bigger innovation and green energy solutions.