Monday, April 12, 2010

Even Roads Can Produce Energy!

Being green and sustainable is very much in vogue right now, and for good reason. You wouldn't believe how many links I've archived regarding solar panels, alternate energy, energy conservation, and sustainable cities. (141 hits when I search for 'solar' alone, in case you were wondering.)

I've got one and only one today, though, and so what if the story's* 8 months old? It's still awesome.

Last September, Solar Roadways was awarded a grant to build a prototype solar panel that can be used to replace asphalt.
When shined upon, each panel generates an estimated 7.6 kilowatt hours of power each day. If this electricity could be pumped into the grid, the company predicts that a four-lane, one-mile stretch of road with panels could generate enough power for 500 homes. Although it would be expensive, covering the entire US interstate highway system with the panels could theoretically fulfill the country's total energy needs. The company estimates that this would take 5 billion panels, but could "produce three times more power than we've ever used as a nation - almost enough to power the entire world."
Assuming that heavy or repeated use doesn't damage the things, this could easily be a godsend for the Green Future Dream, but there's more!
The Solar Road Panels also contain embedded LED lights that "paint" the road lines from beneath to provide safer nighttime driving. The LEDs could also be programmed to alert drivers of detours or road construction ahead, and can even sense wildlife on the road and warn drivers to slow down. The roads could also contain embedded heating elements in the surface to prevent snow and ice from building up on the road. Further, in the future, fully electric vehicles could recharge along the roadway and in parking lots, making electric cars practical for long trips.
It sounds suspiciously utopian to me (I'm a bit of a cynic, and probably understating how much), but I'll buy into it up to a point—largely because my speculating machinery's started whirring.

  • If paving the US with solar panels could power the world, how much power would come from paving the world? Would it be enough to boost us closer to Type I Civilization status?
  • If the US produces enough energy to power the world, how will that energy be transported to where it's needed? What economic upheavals are in store?
  • If we replace asphalt with solar panels, what do we do with the asphalt? Can it be broken down, melted, or repurposed for anything other than building new roads? Could we turn asphalt into plastics?
  • To recharge vehicles while they're in motion, we'd need some method of wireless electrical transmission. What would that look like, how durable would it be, and what other applications for the same charging technology are there? We'd got wireless electricity now, but on a very small scale (size of a room). Would we be able to power neighbourhoods or even cities wirelessly?
  • Why stop at alerting drivers of hazards? Why not use the road to pilot the cars, period?** (You'd need emergency overrides, but more most situations, autopilot would probably work.)
  • Why stop at using the panels to absorb light? Why not build in ways to generate electricity from friction or pressure too?
  • And finally, listening to my inner cynic: how can we turn this utopian dream into a dystopia?
** Yes, I know this has been done in fiction. It just hasn't been done with solar panels.


DR said...

I think I'm even more of a cynic than you. The road conditions around here are horrible. We have potholes, cracks, damage from the elements, cars, long term usage, over usage of small roads by large vehicles, water main breaks, mine subsidence... I have trouble believing it could ever get off the ground considering how sensitive and precise the equipment within could hold up.

But if it could, that would be extremely awesome.

Anassa said...

I've seen roads like those too. Definitely not fun to be driving on, and I can't imagine that maintenance on a solar panel road would be much better than what we see now. Though, maybe if we relied on the energy from the road, maintenance would actually happen?

I'll keep my fingers crossed.