Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Solar Highways - A Novel idea

About a month ago, i was having a discussion with my friend about the solar industry and its future. We talked about the prospect of the solar business, and how U.S. is doing compared to the rest of the world. He asked me a question that intrigued me. "What if we had solar panels on all our roads?". This made me think and wanted to do some research. I came across this video about solar roadways. I just thought it was a novel idea. Lets look at this video.

We have one of the best road and highway system in the world. Ever since Eisenhower implemented the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, commonly called the Interstate Highway System, we have had miles and miles of asphalts laid across all over the country. To be exact, as of 2006 we have about 46,876 miles (75,440 km), making it the largest highway system in the world (source). From this video, there are many good points and some vague points that popped out in my mind.
  1. Asphalt prices are increasing?  This definitely concerned me, so i decided to do some research. Three facts that popped out immediately from reading about asphalt (source). First point: Asphalt is a by-product of the residue that is left behind after the more desirable components of crude oil and petroleum have been harvested. One of these by-products, bitumen, is sometimes referred to as asphalt oil which is used in the mix. In plain English, it's the stuff left over after gasoline, diesel, and jet fuels are produced. Second point: The most common use of Liquid asphalt is for making asphalt concrete for roads (source). There are plenty of new highway and constructions projects that occur every year. Third point: An old rule of thumb is one ton will cover one square yard (3'x3') at 18 inch depth (source). Checking up on the prices, the price of asphalt has been steadily increasing over the past few years. Here is a sample price index for the state of New York: click here. Keep in mind that the solar panel prices have been steadily decreasing!!!!! One positive fact that i came across: Asphalt road surface is the most widely recycled material in the US, both by gross tonnage and by percentage. According to a report issued by the Federal Highway Administration and the United States Environmental Protection Agency, 80% of the asphalt removed each year from road surfaces during widening and resurfacing projects is reused as part of new roads, roadbeds, shoulders and embankments. But the asphalt prices are still increasing steadily. This is because of the steady increase of oil price. Taking all these factors into account, it makes sense that the asphalt prices have soared. This USAToday article sums it up very well. To see an example asphalt price index, click here (this is for the state of New Jersey). The prices are per ton.
  2. Cover the roads with 15% efficient solar panels to meet all our power needs? This might need some detailed research and testing. While this might be true in rural areas where there isn't much traffic on the roads so the solar roads can actually absorb all the sunlight, this will definitely not be feasible in big cities. Common sense, there is constant traffic on the roads during the day while the sun is shining so the roads are constantly covered with vehicles. The only time big cities don't have traffic is at night when there is no sun! 
  3. The video doesn't show any type of storing method, maybe, batteries. The lines or those "slow down" signs on the roads need to be illuminated during night time when there is no sun. From the video they used LEDs for the signs. So to get the power to light up these lines during night, the only way they can get it is from batteries. But, I'm sure its being researched and developed, since this video is only about a prototype.
  4. I definitely like the fact that we can use recycled materials to make the panels for solar roadways. The fact that we can add organic materials and make them sturdy enough to satisfy all the requirements is amazing.  
  5. This project is very much possible since all the technologies to do this particular project already exists and we already know them very well. We know how to develop, manufacture, and use them. Combining them and doing something innovative is something that can revolutionize the way we see things today.
TED Talk about solar roadways

My opinion: Solar roadways is a novel idea. All the technologies already exist to make this happen therefore it is very feasible. I think this idea deserves a trial run and see how it performs. I'm eagerly waiting to see the results after implementing them in real time on a stretch of high way.

You can check out the solar roadways website: click here


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