Inventors Julie and Scott Brusaw are developing a smart grid technology from surfacing roads with solar panels rather than with asphalt and concrete.
They imagined a road surface made from a translucent, weatherproof material underneath which was embedded solar cells and electronics for controlling an array of sophisticated road elements such as lighting and ice melting.
Their vision was for an "intelligent highway system" powered by the sun. But if such a system was possible, they realized that it would have even a greater potential.
As Scott explains, there are 25,000 square miles (40,233 kilometers) of road surface in the United States. If that surface collected solar energy, with only a 15% efficiency, it would produce triple the amount of electricity used annually in the United States. In fact, it would produce enough electricity to meet the demand for the entire planet.
Currently, 3,000 utilities generate electricity from 5,400 power plants that derive 92% of their energy from fossil fuels, coal and nuclear fusion. This electricity is then delivered through an antiquated system of 150,000 miles (241,400 kilometers) of overhead and underground high-voltage transmission lines, relay stations, transformers and utility poles.
According to Kevin Kolevar, an assistant director for the Department of Energy, our electricity grid is in trouble, “If we don’t expand our capacity to to keep up with an increase in demand of 40 percent over the next 25 years, we’re going to see healthy grids become less reliable. Any disruption - like the downed transmission line that sparked the 2003 blackout in the Northeast - can cripple the network.” says Kolevar.
Brusaw points out that as the demand for electricity has been increasing over the decades (currently 4 trillion kilowatt-hours annually), the current aging grid system is inefficient (60% of energy generated into electricity is wasted as heat and 400 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity is lost through transmission).
"It can't handle the demand," he says. As a result blackouts are growing in frequency. In fact, on any given day, 500,000 Americans experience disruptions in their electricity, which amounts to economic losses of approximately $95 billion a year.
The roads would become "intelligent", with computerized digital sensors and the latest in communications technology. A sophistication that is non-existent in our current grid.
But is converting our highways, driveways and parking lots into smart solar panels the best solution? Brunson, an electrical engineer, thinks it is and others are starting to believe that he might be on to something.
In 2009, the Brusaws received $100,000 from the Federal Highway Administration to develop a prototype solar road panel.
In 2010, General Electric awarded them a $50,000 grant and in 2011, the Federal Highway Administration followed up with another grant for $750,000.
Sources: solarroadways.com; national geographic, july 2010; Photo credits: yourenvironmentalroadtrip.com