In 2014, news broke about a couple of Idaho natives, Scott and Julie Brusaw, who had prototyped a working solar-powered roadway. At the time, it may have seemed a bit like something out of a “Star Trek” episode, but it started many thinking, “What if?”
What if we could generate all the power our society needs by laying solar panels along the millions of miles of roads that already crisscross our planet? What if we could ditch every other power-generation method? What if we could stop polluting the planet and arrest climate change?”
Though it sounds like science fiction, it is scientific fact. Sort of. Solar roadways already exist in France, the Netherlands, China and the United States — in Missouri — but none of them have yet lived up to the promise of the premise.
So, when can we expect to drive along solar-powered highways? Unfortunately, the answer is not any time soon, and the reasons are as complex as they are numerous.
First, current technology makes solar-powered roads incredibly expensive. One estimate suggests that converting every asphalt and concrete roadway in the United States would cost between $56 trillion and $330 trillion.
While the conversion would generate three times as much electricity as we currently use and would end our reliance on fossil fuels, it is simply infeasible at that price. To illustrate just how much money that is, the entire GDP for the United States in 2018 is expected to reach about $18.6 trillion.
Second, solar roadway panels have many physical limitations. They currently are more fragile than conventional roadways and would need to be self-cleaning, and capable of transferring some of the generated electricity into heat to melt snow and ice in colder climates.
Add significant infrastructure issues — including efficient ways to collect and store the power that is generated — and the whole concept seems like a crazy idea.
There are even purely human problems. Just five days after the Jinan South Ring Expressway opened in China, thieves stole a section of the road. State-run Chinese media reported that the thieves belonged to a gang looking to profit from the new technology.
So why has China just built the world’s first highway using the sun’s energy in Jinan, a city of 7 million people? The answer may be as complex as the problem it attempts to solve. But the short answer is that, if the technology can be perfected, it could help solve many of the world’s worst environmental and geopolitical problems.
Imagine a world where we did not have to burn polluting fossil fuels, including oil and coal. Imagine a world where air pollution did not increase mortality rates by 6 percent, as it currently does in Jinan. Imagine a world where we no longer have to fight never-ending wars or devastate the planet’s last untouched wilderness over dwindling supplies of crude oil.
Solar-powered highways open even more possibilities. They could become wireless chargers for electric cars and the base upon which the self-driving infrastructure is laid. Solar roadways are capable of illumination and could double as road signs, alerting drivers to accidents and Amber alerts. They could melt snow and ice, reducing traffic accidents.
There are very complex problems to be overcome before solar-powered roadways are a legitimate and cost-effective alternative to current power-generation systems.
In truth, the technology may never become viable, but engineers, entrepreneurs and forward-thinkers are asking the questions and increasingly are willing to take chances that may answer them.
And the world is watching and waiting.