Remember Solar Roadways? As a fresh reminder, Solar Roadways became massively viral a few years ago after claiming to be the end-all solution to the global energy crisis. The idea was to implement solar panels into the road to produce electricity. The panels allegedly were also going to light up the roads with different LED patterns replacing painted lines. For the winter heating coils could melt snow and ice- all while generating electricity and requiring less maintenance. It seems too good to be true. And as it turns out, it is.
Solar freakin’ roadways turned out to be a total freakin’ engineering failure. After years of development and millions of dollars (including government funding), Solar Roadways has nothing to show but a few broken, incredibly inefficient solar panels.
Solar Roadways, one of the biggest hypes of modern engineering; the final solution to solve the global energy crisis and eradicate global warming- except it was not. Solar Roadways are a terrible idea.
An Engineering Failure
With the global road network spanning an impressive 16.3 million kilometers, it seems reasonable that covering them with solar roadways could generate a substantial amount of electricity. Assuming the average road is 8 meters wide, the area accumulates a whopping 130,400,000 meters squared. Placing solar panels on a mere fraction, in theory, should generate a respectable amount of energy.
Roadways clThe theory, however, is fundamentally flawed. The largest incentive of the project was its ability to pay itself off- or its return of investment (ROI). Though as of yet (and it has been almost 7 years in the making), Solar Roadways has never produced such metrics. It makes sense, though.
Not enough light
To produce power, you need light. After years of research and development (and some basic knowledge), researchers determined the optimal way to harness light is by tracking the sun- or at the very least angling the solar panels in the direction of the sun. Laying them flat on the ground is about as useless as using a fork to eat soup. Sure, it is technically feasible but is highly impractical- that is before any other factor is considered.
Laying a solar panel flat will result in a 60 percent power loss in comparison to a tracking solar panel. Laying the panels flat is a terrible idea for generating electricity- and that is before the panels are introduced to the constant wear and tear of traffic which will only further reduce efficiency.
[Image Souce: Thunderf00t via YouTube]
Solar Roadways also claims that the panels can be used in parking lots- which comes with an inherent problem, the cars will be parked ON the panels. Going back to the issue of light, parking cars overtop of solar panels during peak light times during the day is not the most practical solution. Sure, the LED’s would look cool, if anyone could see them that is.
LED’s are not visible during the day
LED’s look great- inside. It does not take long to learn that using a cell phone in the broad summer light makes it incredibly difficult to see the screen. Sure, increasing the amount of LED’s could improve the visibility. It would, however, completely defeat the purpose of the road- the more lights, the less power for the grid.
Still, the researchers and developers at Solar Roadways went forward with their design. The team did install a small section of solar roads, but the results are hardly impressive. It looks cool- except it broke in a day, then caught fire some time later (no wonder considering all the heat being produced from all the LED’s). Also, the lights are hardly visible. Earlier this year, the panels did receive an upgrade, but the lights are still incredibly difficult to see.
LED lighting is hardly visible during the day [Image Souce: Thunderf00t via YouTube]
This is before dirt combined with how scratched the glass will be from all the traffic will make the solar roadways so opaque that virtually no light would be visible at all.
It is absurdly expensive
Solar Roadways claims that covering the southern 48 state roads with solar roads (about 6 billion square meters) would produce three times more electricity than the annual power consumption of the United States. This figure is true, however, it does not factor in the cost of something so ridiculous. A quick calculation by ThunderF00t, a somewhat infamous YouTuber, determined that just the glass cost alone would exceed 20 TRILLIAN DOLLARS– Yes, you read that right. And yes, it is 10 times the federal budget. This is before the solar panels, installation, and other materials are even considered.
LED’s do not have a long lifespan. That with the microprocessors and other vulnerable equipment within the solar roadway will constantly be under stress and wear from constant traffic. Solar roadways with current technology are completely unfeasible. It would be significantly more efficient to run the solar panels alongside the road where they are not subject to such harsh conditions. Also, it would be significantly easier to access and maintain the panels. Not to mention they could be angled to be more efficient.
What Progress has been made
So far, almost 4 million dollars of funding has gone into the idea. Now, Solar Roadways claims that with a few more dollars (that is 50 million dollars) they can complete testing and begin implementation. As mentioned previously, a solar roadway prototype was put on display a few months ago. Unfortunately (and somewhat expectedly) the LED’s were powered by an outside source because the panels simply cannot produce enough power all the time to keep them on.
The unveiling was less than spectacular and was hardly visible. The LED’s did receive an upgrade, however, the results are still not great. One promise that does remain is its ability to melt snow. Which makes sense given how much energy the lights draw.
[Image Souce: Thunderf00t via YouTube]
The one promise did hold up. However, more failure still came about. As of yet, the company has yet to produce any information as to whether they can actually produce any electricity at all. As of now, it is a solar roadway that cannot generate power and cannot be driven on. In other words, it is an engineering failure.
Improving real science
Technological advances are being made all the time. Modern humanity thrives on innovation. Solar roadways will not be part of the near future. The design is far too expensive, unreliable, and does not work. With the technology available today it is not feasible to design such a feat. Instead of wasting time and money on silly science projects, real advances could be made like funding a functional solar farm that is proven to work.
Perhaps in the future, there will be such a material that can withstand the stresses of traffic and can produce electricity. That time, however, is not now. The idea is incredibly cool, but unfortunately, it is also entirely impractical.
Also, a big thank you goes out to those who are willing to constructively criticize extravagant claims. Without criticism, science cannot progress. It is critical to fact check and ensure ridiculous science such as solar roadways do not hinder real scientific progress. Albeit a great idea, it is an idea that just cannot work- not yet that is.
For more information on the engineering blunder that is solar roadways, here are some fantastic videos to check out.