Sunshine on the Highway, Power to the Grid


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I’m sure that by now all of us have heard that admonition to “think outside the box” so many times that it has long since become a cliché. The idea of thinking outside the box is so old that it is now inside the box. I think that is one reason that truly innovative ideas usually look pretty crazy and improbable to those who are surprised by them. Still, there are ideas that may seem crazy at first, but whose actual craziness eventually becomes their strength. Just remember the put-down of the telephone—“That will never work because you’d have to run wires all over the country.” Duh!

There is now an idea starting to gain traction that appears pretty crazy at first, but which, should it find its way to reality, has some pretty enormous potential. I happen to be attracted to it because if it is implemented, it will require truly massive numbers of microprocessors and embedded intelligence. This is a project known as the Solar Roadway and whose goal is nothing less than to replace asphalt and concrete road surfaces with hardened solar panels that can be driven on. In this scenario, the system for power generation would also become the system for power distribution and also be capable of carrying data traffic including phone, Internet, TV, etc.

It may come as a surprise that certain levels of funding are already in place. The Federal Highway Administration is supporting some initial research and development, and prototypes of road panels are now being built. A panel consists of three layers. The road surface layer is made of high-strength translucent material rough enough to provide good traction, carry the heaviest loads placed on it and protect the underlying electronics. The electronics layer includes microprocessors, solar cells, heating equipment for snow and ice removal, lighting and communication systems. The base plate layer sandwiches the electronics layer for protection and carries the data and control signals to other panels. A road system built of 12 x 12-foot panels would act as a smart grid and national communications network. The generation of electricity by the roadway is being presented as the way to pay for the enormous construction costs—some of which must be expended anyway simply to maintain the existing infrastructure.

Now if an idea like that doesn’t sound ambitious, I don’t know what will. Conservative estimates show that covering the entire 28,962 square miles of road surface in the country could result in over 13,961 billion kilowatt hours of useable power per year—as opposed to the approximately 3,741 billion kilowatt hours currently consumed (based on EIA figures for 2009) each year by the U.S. This allows for northern roads producing less electricity than their southern counterparts due to the sun angle and other vagaries inherent in such a massive undertaking. Obviously, that can’t happen overnight, nor will every square mile of road surface be converted. The idea is to start with parking lots and driveways and expand out onto roadways. With the national highway (and Interstate) infrastructure in need of maintenance, the push from Solar Roadway will be to resurface those roads with the panels, gradually linking them all together with the Smart Grid. Such a grid system, completely decentralized, would be largely immune to wide system failure or to terrorist attack.

In addition to providing eventually more electricity than currently needed, the solar highway would also be an intelligent highway, able to sense the traffic on it or even pedestrians in a crosswalk, communicate with control centers and by virtue of its embedded LED lighting, be capable of dynamically interacting with drivers. For example, lights in the roadway could warn of an accident ahead, guide drivers to detours or change speed limits for different conditions. RFID devices in vehicles could be used to track individual vehicles by both government and private entities and fleet management systems. For military applications, airstrips and forward bases could be built in remote areas and would automatically generate power without having to bring in generators or run power lines.

Then there is the matter of electric vehicles. The limited length of a charge and the time required to recharge are among the biggest hurdles for the wide acceptance of electric vehicles. Installing charging stations at points along the solar roadway would be a natural outgrowth of its implementation. In addition, work is being done to develop ways to use mutual induction for charging electric cars as they travel down the solar roadway. The hope is that the elimination of fossil fuel power generation by a vast solar highway system would also eliminate both the fossil fuels needed to power the vehicles as well as fossil fuel and nuclear plants needed to charge them, vastly cutting down or eliminating greenhouse gas emissions.

Does this all sound crazy? Good. At least that is thinking outside whatever multi-dimensional container now normally restricts creative thought. More concrete—or hardened translucent material—information may be found at It can be an entertaining and possibly inspiring experience to take a look.