I was looking at the guide on the homepage for Solar Power Rocks this morning and noticed their chart on 2015 State by State Solar Investment Rankings. Idaho, where I hang my hat, was in a frightening red, indicating it had been given an F. Only ten other states had that same designation.
As an Idahoan I really wanted to object to that assessment. Unfortunately I couldn’t. I won’t bother to go into any details about it. SPR has already done it far more effectively than I have room for, and I am not fond of reinventing the wheel.
I am, however, fond of invention, and in that at least I can feel proud of something coming out of Idaho. That something is the work of Scott Brusaw and his agreement with the small town of Sandpoint. If it goes off as expected, Sandpoint will be the first town in the U.S. to have solar power generating roads.
Scott owns and operates Solar Roadways. The company is a small startup he created to push forward an idea he first came up with during a casual conversation with his wife. The idea was to create modular panels capable of generating solar energy that could also withstand the impact of a semi crossing them at highway speeds. Having spent more than 20 years as an electrical engineer he felt this was quite realistic if he could find the right protective surface and deal with some of the common problems with solar panels caused by adverse weather.
The simple solution was heated glass. Scott went out and asked a number of experts on materials used in high load construction, including Edwin Schmeckpeper, an engineering professor at Norwich University. Schmeckpeper load tested several potential materials for their ability to protect solar panels from high speed, heavy traffic while still allowing sunlight to hit the power generating surfaces and discovered that glass could support nearly twice the weight our roadways currently are designed for. He became convinced the project was doable. “Using the roads as a means to collect energy, I think that will go,” he’s stated in past interviews. “It’s a large flat surface that’s collecting solar energy that can be tapped.”
He’s not the only one convinced. So far a number of high profile groups have taken an interest. The Federal Highway Administration has been watching the project since 2009, pouring $850,000 into Scott’s research. Private investors have also gotten involved. GE gave them a $50,000 prize for their innovative work, and a crowdfunding campaign on Indigogo raised over $2.2M for the project. Even Idaho’s less-than-environmentally-friendly politicians are taking notice.
The biggest endorsement so far, however, has been from Scott’s own hometown of Sandpoint, ID. The city and many of its businesses are preparing to install his solar panels on roads and parking lots starting in spring 2015. The first project will be the parking lot of Sandpoint’s Amtrak station. The City Council is currently pursuing a grant to help fund a project to convert all major roads in the town of 7,500 people.
Of course, the one big question is “Will it actually work”? Well, the numbers look pretty good. Scott has an entire page describing them, so I won’t go in depth on them here. Instead I’ll simply summarize the potential with a single statement from that page.
Solar Roadways could produce over three times the electricity that we currently use in the United States.
I’ll let you decide for yourself if that’s hyperbolic or not. I will simply point out that even if it is, and the solar power panels were to produce only a third the predicted power that means America’s 31,250 square miles of road surface would still provide for our current power needs without our having to continue to rely on current fossil fuel based power sources.
So, Idaho may be getting an F in terms of its application of solar power. Our government may be too intent on relying on our current low electricity prices, and our current politicians may view it only as a way to create jobs and reduce dependence on foreign oil. Scott Brusaw and Sandpoint ID, however, have earned an A+ in my book, and I hope the state will eventually come around and follow suit.
James Hinton is a long time Idahoan who defies state tradition by thinking for himself. He lives at home with four daughters who refuse to let him harness their energy via a treadmill hooked up to a generator in order to power his five acre hobby farm.