Solar Freakin’ Roadways Video Goes Viral, But Will Real Solar Roadways Go Anywhere?

June 7, 2014

I’ve posted video descriptions of the Solar Roadway proposal on these pages.

A new video on the concept has gone viral with over 15 million views, and helped the inventors to a huge crowd funding windfall.
I think that shows something about how hungry people are for new thinking and solutions – it also shows how little people appreciate the real revolution that is going on under our noses.

Well respected observer of the International Renewable scene, Craig Morris, is unimpressed.

Renewable Energy International:

Solar Roadways is one of the most successful crowd funding campaigns on the Indiegogo platform ever. But don’t believe the hype – this idea is going nowhere, and no one is going anywhere on “solar roadways.” But the bad-mouthing of the good stuff we have takes things too far and cannot stand.

As one of the cofounders of PV Magazine in Germany back in 2008, I spoke out against a couple of article ideas. For instance, I convinced the editor-in-chief not to go with a piece on a solar production line in space by showing him what it costs to put a single kilogram into orbit; at the time, Americans were fixated on getting solar from outer space, and some had suggested that we should go ahead and make the panels up there as well.

I also thought Solyndra (another American idea) was weird (in fact, everyone in the office did), but we went with a cover story on that – after all, you have to sell magazines somehow. Outlandish nonsense has a way of making the front page. Heck, some publications are filled with nothing-but these days.

Another thing I was asked to look into but eventually refused to write about was using solar panels as pavement; the idea was garbage. This was back in 2009, when Solar Roadways had gotten its first grant from the US government to develop the technology.

Not only do the makers of Solar Roadways not know the first thing about solar or roadways, but they apparently also have never played basketball. Above, the surface on which we are apparently not only to drive and park our cars, but also dribble. My ankle is twisted already just thinking about it.

Now, the technology is back with a vengeance through crowdfunding. I’m not going to mince words here – the problem is not just that the technology is not going to happen, but that it denigrates what we already have, the stuff that actually works. Here are a few of my issues:

  1. Only Americans would put solar under something. These folks don’t know how solar works. Shading is a major issue in photovoltaics. A single pole – an antenna, for instance – casting a shadow across an array can ruin its output. You see, the current is only as strong as the weakest cell. If one cell is not producing much current (such as when it is shaded), it reduces the entire output of the string. The last thing you want to do is put PV panels under cars. Put the cars under the panels, duh.
  2. Roads serve a purpose. These folks don’t know how roads work, either.  Roads serve several purposes, and the guy who did this video has saved me a lot of time by explaining almost everything. As he points out, there’s a reason why we don’t makes roads out of tiles. One issue he does not cover is noise; roads are also made to be quiet – and sometimes to be loud (when you want people driving slowly, for instance). Solar Roadways will always be loud. (Especially when your car goes screeching off the road in the rain.)
  3.  We already have the solar we need. Here’s the part that that is worth fighting against the most. Admittedly, the popular video for the idea was not made by the company, but by some fans. Still, it shows a solar roof and speaks of “lifeless, boring solar panels” and adds, “This isn’t about filling a field with solar panels, wasting land.” Great, so once again we have entrepreneurs telling the public and politicians not to start building what we have, but to wait for some future breakthrough.

To everyone who speaks of the low “energy density” of solar and thinks land with solar on it is “wasted,” take a closer look at those little dots between the panels on this field array in Riegel, Germany (click to enlarge). Those are sheep. This PV takes up no net space, but provides 15 times as much energy as the best energy crop you could plant on that land, and it does so without noise or emissions. If you are waiting for a breakthrough, wake up!

Let me be clear about this: the solar panels we have today are what we are going to have in 2050. They will cost less then, but they will be made of crystalline silicon. We will get other things alongside, such as organic PV, for niche applications, but the future has already started, and we don’t have to wait for something “cool” to come along.

Incidentally, the same holds true for wind turbines. The horizontal-axis, three-blade machines we now have are the cheapest source of renewable electricity and will remain so. No, New York Times, we’re not going to have these dinky vertical-axis things on buildings everywhere. And no, we are not going to havewind funnels.

As someone who has worked in the media for more than a decade, I understand why garbage gets treated like a breakthrough; innovation sells – at least clicks, if not products. Politicians also need to demonstrate that they have funded innovation, which is why R&D grants are popular. Solar Roadways will not be the last counterproductive distraction.

By the way, did you notice that all of these “breakthrough technologies” listed above are from the US – and that the guy in the video critiquing Solar Roadways speaks with a British accent? And the guy who critiques wind funnels is Canadian? And in this report (in German), where I discovered the critique video, seven out of the first eight readers think the idea is garbage (the uninformed person thinks they might be cool).

America, your insistence on breakthroughs is hurting us. Just stop. (Craig Morris)

The maker of Solar Roadways did not answer a request for a cost estimate for this report. He doesn’t have to – people have just thrown a few million dollars at him.


18 Responses to “Solar Freakin’ Roadways Video Goes Viral, But Will Real Solar Roadways Go Anywhere?”

  1. petermogensen Says:

    These are nerdy gadgets. Nothing more.
    “Thunderf00t” of youtube explains:

    • petermogensen Says:

      ohh.. you already had a link to this.

    • andrewfez Says:

      =By the way, did you notice that all of these “breakthrough technologies” listed above are from the US – and that the guy in the video critiquing Solar Roadways speaks with a British accent?=

      The guy with the British accent has a PhD in chemistry and has a credibly long list of peer reviewed journal articles under his belt. Also he works in the US. He usually doesn’t ‘doc’ himself as he thinks a good idea should be able to stand on its own without the need of delivering the credentials of its author. Sometimes he gets in a little trouble as he tries to apply rational thought to topics he hasn’t properly researched, but he makes pretty good videos and entertaining science videos, overall.

    • rayduray Says:

      Thanks for the introduction to Tunderf00t. He’s really good at debunking hype. 🙂

  2. lesliegraham1 Says:

    “when your car goes screeching off the road in the rain.”

    Just as well the panel surface has far more grip than wet asphalt.

    By the way – almost every point raised has already been addressed.
    And as for the ‘cost’? What part of “They pay for themselves in around 22 years at todays prices” are you struggling with?
    Free roads sounds like a good idea to me.
    Come back in 30 years time and apologise.

    • You expect them to last for 20 years? Because they’d have to in order to be economically viable.

      What road surface have you ever heard of that lasts 20 years.

      • lesliegraham1 Says:

        Yes – they are expected to last over thirty years.
        And I noticed you ignored the fact that they have more traction than tarmac even when wet.
        People laughed at the Wright Brothers too.
        And remember the idea of a “horseless carriage”? Insane wasn’t it – everyone said so at the time.

        Maybe they won’t work – but thats what we will find out.
        Obviously the first place to try them would be on quiet suburban roads. Lord knows there are thousands of miles of them just sitting there hardly used.
        It’s also still at the prototype stage – problems will be ironed out over time.
        As I said – come back in 30 years and we’ll talk.

        • dumboldguy Says:

          This proves my old saying that no horse is ever too dead to beat, even one that had been turned into a thin film of road kill many months ago. I won’t be around to talk about it in 30 years but neither will any Solar Roadways owners—-it is a freakin’ BAD idea that we have talked to death, and all but the incurably bright-sided or science-impaired should have gotten the message by now. I hate to admit it but Anthony Watts and Roy Spencer have a quite clear-headed view of the failings Solar Roadways. The fact that they knock SR because they are shills for fossil fuel doesn’t mean the science isn’t on their side.


  3. This was more like an Anti-America story than anything else. Sorry, but innovation can come from anywhere, and thinking outside the box is how you get there. That plus intelligence, hard work, collaboration, and fund money. I’d like to see beta tests of these things before denigrating them as stupid and a waste of time.

    Notice I did not, anywhere, wax poetic about solar roads. I said I want to see the test results, done on real roads, conducted by real scientists and engineers.

    • Gingerbaker Says:

      Ah, but must we calibrate the smell of a polished turd to know that is smells like a turd?

      Why is it that ludicrous ideas like solar roads capture peoples attention, but a technology that actually makes sense and appears to be feasible – electric roads – is almost impossible to generate reportage?

      Google inductive charging roadways and try to find 1/1000 the contemporary activity of that moose walking on green octogons. It’s almost all from a few years ago. There are two recent projects – small scale tests in Sweden and S. Korea. That’s it.

      A feasible technology that would completely revolutionize the transportation sector, probably saving many trillions of dollars of public and personal spending and virtually nothing.

      Octogon moose – 24,000,000 citations and counting. Dilettantism polluting the conversation.

  4. redskylite Says:

    I know people are sceptical of this project, but it is a strong concept, that I can see uses such as traffic free town shopping centres.

    Along the same lines India has a project to cover it’s canals with solar panels. We need these types of innovation and ideas to boot out Carbon Emissions, and just to keep the “poet” happy India have just started up a new nuke too.

    • While I don’t wish to speak for Poet (he’s quite capable of speaking for himself), I’m in the pro-nuclear camp too and I’m NOT particularly happy about Kudankulam. For one thing, it’s just a conventional pressurized water reactor, hardly generation IV which is what I’d really like to see. But putting that aside for the moment, I’m not too pleased to see that it’s only about 10 meters above sea level, the same elevation as Fukushima.

      I’ve said before that I think we need an international standard that all new nuclear reactors must be a minimum of 30 meters above sea level. Fukushima makes it obvious why that should be.

      I looked up the location of Kudankulam on Google Earth. If you’d like to take a look, here are the coordinates:

      Latitude 8.167710°
      Longitude 77.714384°

      From Google Earth, I can determine that if the reactor was built just 1/2 km to the north, it would be at 30 meters elevation. So it can hardly be claimed that they had no high spot to built it. In fairness, when they started construction (in 2002), the world was less tsunami-aware than now. The killer Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 should have raised some eyebrows, but apparently they pushed forward with construction anyway. Then came Fukushima in 2011, but by then the Indians were too committed to the site they have now. Sigh.

      The only argument in favor of building a nuclear powerplant at such a low elevation is that it saves a small amount of energy on pumping cooling water from the sea. But it hardly seems worth it. And if we ever get to generation IV, we would not even need cooling water. But such details tend to get lost in the fog. Germany is shutting down nuclear reactors in Bavaria (500 km from the sea) because of a tsunami in Japan.

      Details matter. True for solar as well as nukes. You can build bad solar – on roads for example – and it won’t work. One would think that the world possesses enough technical competence to know that, but apparently not.

  5. Because the function of a road and the function of a solar panel are so different – neither works with this. Driving heavy, dirty vehicle on an expensive, sophisticated device makes no sense, because the structural loads mean that there has to be huge supports underneath the panels. Potholes in a panel, and sanded winter roadways, and water infiltration; never mind skids and accidents and vehicle fires and fuel spills and dripping oil, blowouts and scraping metal.

    As solar panels, the orientation stinks. In traffic jams, almost the entire thing is in shade.

    This is a bonkers idea. Put regular PV panels *next* to the road, and/or in the median strip or above the road as a canopy *where there is good consistent exposure* – and be done with it. There are translucent panels that would make a great canopy. No grinding tires, no grit and grime, only rain and not sitting in a puddle.

    Solar roads as envisaged here is not realistic.

  6. One issue he does not cover is noise; roads are also made to be quiet – and sometimes to be loud (when you want people driving slowly, for instance). Solar Roadways will always be loud.

    Up for 28 hours, and DOG hasn’t ragged on it yet.

    Funny, that.

  7. A note about playing basketball and twisted ankles: That’s the parking pad testbed there, which has the roadway surface. There is also a walking surface for applications that don’t involve vehicles doing over 50km/h.

    Some other notes:

    Yes, they know that noise may be a problem: That’s one of the reasons they’re working on having a longer stretch installed in a test track, (the other is to make sure exactly how they respond to extended wear). However, all early installations are intended to be for applications where that does not matter.

    One thing about the design is that you _don’t_ need to salt or sand it in the winter, (or plow it): They’re heated.

    Now, am I confident that it will be as successful as the creators seem to think? No.OTOH, even a minimal success creates something good.

  8. […] Solar Freakin’ Roadways Video Goes Viral, But Will Real Solar Roadways Go Anywhere? […]

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