Sunday, May 25, 2014

Who knew solving our energy needs could be so freakin’ COOL!?

Okay, I'll admit it: The first time I saw this video on Elite Daily, I went into "full geek" mode. As in screaming, “THIS IS FREAKIN’ COOL!” Or maybe it was that part of the Y chromosome that interprets such gadgets as “toys”, no matter how utilitarian they’re meant to be. Nevertheless, it’s hard not to find the Solar Roadways concept slathered in awesome sauce.

Of course, once I got over the initial knee-jerk nerd/guy reaction, I started to critique it. The video, not to mention the website, makes some claims that are difficult not to write off as PR-flack hyperbole. Some of the benefits wouldn’t even begin to be realized until a hefty chunk of our current road system is replaced, making enough parallel connections to have at least the spine of a national solar-power network. And it’s as well that the design as envisioned by founders Scott and Julie Brusaw includes other elements of our infrastructure (power, data, waste water), because the cost per mile is bound to be mind-boggling.

However, it’s clear from the FAQ page that Brusaw & Co. have have done a pretty good job of anticipating common objections. For instance:

It’s always been our intention to start with [sidewalks, driveways and parking lots] before moving on to roads. We anticipate a learning curve, and the need to tweak our technology. We don’t want to learn our lessons on the fast lane of a highway! After success with slow moving, lightweight vehicles (of parking lots, etc.), then we’ll move onto residential roads.Our final goal will be highways.

“Tweak” is an understatement. The geometric design of roads pretty much guarantees that interstitial modules will be needed to accommodate different degrees of curve, bank and intersection, which will more often than not require custom manufacture. Labs have tested solar cells with a 44% efficiency in converting light to electricity, the Brusaws note, but they’re not “cost feasible” yet; the current projections have been crunched based on a solar panel that generates 220 watts with a dismal conversion efficiency of 18.5%. Sooner or later, it’s going to occur to someone that the textured glass surface, which has been tested to stop vehicles moving at 80 mph “within the required distance” (on wet concrete or asphalt, an average car has a skid length of about 389.25 feet), may impact tire lifespan.

Most of all, though, to produce modules in the numbers that would be demanded for any significant road project, Solar Roadways will have to build at least one major factory, which will take a lot of investment dollars. And venture capitalists are odd creatures — one year they’ll pounce on anything that looks cool, whether or not it generates revenue (can you say “dot-com bubble”, kids?); the next they’ll want a signed assurance from God Himself that the venture will be wildly profitable before the land is bulldozed and the foundations poured for the factory. In this regard, the Brusaws are wise in taking the time to demonstrate Solar Roadways’ commercial viability.

The payoff for the consumer, however, would be in the production of free “green” electricity. Imagine reducing your electric bill 95 – 99%, saving thousands of dollars a year, by having your house powered by your walks and driveway, your store or office building powered by your parking lots!

Frankly, I don't have to buy into climate-change doomsaying to be convinced of the merits of environmental responsibility. This is one feature of the presentation that really impresses me; the Brusaws seem truly concerned about minimizing the environmental impact by using recycled material and eliminating as much as possible the use of rare-earth materials. It also appears that this “green” concern doesn’t come packaged with a hostility to capitalism. They’re seeking seed money through crowdfunding; one of the reasons they give is that outside investor control may force them to outsource the manufacturing overseas, and the Brusaws want to keep the jobs here in the good ol’ USA. However, when asked who would “own” the electricity produced by the roadway modules, they answer, “Whoever owns the modules;” they see nothing wrong with private or semi-private energy companies “owning” the roads. I don’t believe the Brusaws would deny that they want success to bring them wealth; there’s no law says they have to be that altruistic!

So while Solar Roadways by no means promises to fix our energy and infrastructure needs “on the cheap” or within the next decade, it seems to me a solution worth attention, encouragement and investment.

Besides ... it really is freakin’ awesome!