I think a month or so ago was the first time that I had heard about a small company working on the project of “solar roadways”. The idea being, that the power of the sun could be utilized to help quench the US’s (and the worlds) growing and ever present appetite for electricity. View the video HERE .
The endeavor would involve changing out the concrete/asphalt that currently makes up the road systems in the US (and eventually, around the world), with small 3 foot (or so) panels that contain both solar panels and LED lighting (which would replace road paint), as well as heating coils, wiring and other relevant parts.
While the idea does on the surface sound like an interesting solution to an ever present problem (huge energy demands, lessoning reliance on fossil fuels), like many other ideas, it does not stand up to scrutiny.
The most vocal source of that scrutiny that I have come across, is from Youtube user Thunderf00t. Below I will link all 3 of the relevant videos (and the fourth, when it is released).
My first criticism would be with the video itself. Solar Freakin Roadways!
Sure, its catchy and will work perfectly for the young (and arguably ill informed and under critical) audience that you desire. But for the rest of us, its bloody annoying. It does not inspire my “WOW!” factor, it makes me want to pop an Advil.
But that is just, cosmetic. You can not judge a book by its cover, and you can not judge an idea by its advertisement.
So long as the hypothesis can stand up to scrutiny, then it should remain relevant. That is the way of science, last I checked. Start with an idea, test it, check the results. If not what was expected, you make changes until you can achieve the desired result. Or if not possible for any reason, you toss that idea and start from scratch.
After watching all his videos, I have personally concluded that Thunderf00t has played the part of the independent researcher, and come to a good conclusion as to the over all feasibility of the project (not very good). I am satisfied that his findings are, as accurate as is possible with the shoe string budget he has to work with.
Not only am I confident in his findings (fairly easy for anyone to replicate) and his research (easily search-able online), I am confident that, he has single handedly debunked the whole concept. And contrary to just smashing the idea and walking away with an air of smug arrogance (something detected by many youtube “solar roadways” supporters, many of which I am guessing viewed none of his videos on the topic), he provides insights into how you could use the same technology, more intelligently.
For example, rotating solar panels that would sit on the roadside, that follow the sun across the sky (and therefore, utilize as much of the energy as possible). Along the side of the road, is often times unused land anyway. And of course, the idea of a parking lot COVERED by a canopy of solar panels, as opposed to in the pavement (when the only time the pavement will be clear, is during the night).
The information in all of these videos, should be enough to at least, make people think twice about the whole concept. Not necessarily throw it away, but to accept that in its current form, its good for little more then, making cities and highways look ultra modern.
And yet, apparently not. In the same way that these people seem to find nothing to criticize in anything Google does (not seeing an agenda in launching”free” wifi drones, and otherwise not holding Google to the same standards as they do every other “non-progressive” company), they do not want to see reality here. Any criticism of the idea, is just from the “haters”. Only SUPPORTERS have anything constructive to add to the conversation.
Which is just, stupid.
To that end, my piece that I want to add to this conversation.
One of the vocal selling points of this project, is the usage of recycled materials. The focus is mainly on the glass top, which is to their credit, easily obtained though recycling current glass in circulation worldwide. And its fairly simple to make from scratch (the world has lots of sand).
But though I see a fair bit of plastic in each of those units, there is no mention of either the source of the material (virgin or reclaimed/recycled?) nor is there any mention of what happens at the end of the life of the panel (plastic or otherwise). My primary concern is the plastics.
Of course, plastic is “technically” recyclable. But its more complicated then that. There are 6 MAIN kinds of plastic resin alone!
1 PETE (Polyethylene terephthalate)
2 HDPE (High Desity Polyethylene)
3 V/PVC (Vinyl/Polyvinyl Chloride)
4 LDPE (Low Density Polyethylene)
5 PP (Polypropylene)
6 PS (Polystyrene)
7 Other (all other plastic resins. There are HUNDREDS, if not more)
This issue, may not be so obvious. But it becomes clear, when you understand the “true” recycling process for plastics. In truth, for many, it is more a situation of “down-cycling”. Unlike glass, metal, paper and pretty much every other recyclable material that you can toss in a given day, plastic takes much effort to recycle.
You can take a thousand pieces of paper, cardboard, tin cans, glass bottles etc, and easily recycle them as is, unsorted (with the exception of glass, which goes by color, if necessary). This is because paper and cardboard, in whatever form its in at present, all breaks down the same way, ends in the same result (pulp). And glass and alike metals, all have the same melting point. So 100 aluminum or tin cans will yield the same result, no matter what their previous use.
But every plastic resin in existence, has a different melting point. Meaning that every single one has to be sorted, and further sorting has to be done by color (the color of the resin is the form that it will remain in further use). Then there is the fact that, recycled plastic, is almost never as good as virgin (newly manufactured) plastics. As such, each consecutive “cycle” is a downgrade.
It is for this reason, that even the most commonly recycled plastic type (#1 or PETE), has a rate that is bugger all.
But, back to the “solar roadways” implications.
These panels require a fair amount of plastic in there construction. One question I have, is what type?
In the best case scenario, the answer would be all of the above. But more then likely, it would involve a specific kind of plastic. There in putting a limitation on the usage of recycled content possible to utilize (if it falls outside the commonly recycled varieties that are 1, 2 and 5, a lot of the material will be virgin in origin).
Then there is the end of their lifespan. Can they be recycled again, to become part of the process once more? Or is it off to the landfill?
And on a completely different track, there is that question of what happens to these things, in the event of pointed stresses (accidents) on the road surface. Can the panels take any amount of force (for example, a car or semi flipping)?
And if it is a situation where there is a risk of fire (tanker fire, or a road in a forest fire hot spot), will the roadway, contribute to the problem? Can you fight a fire that has melted and possibly exposed the inner components of these panels, with water?
The plastic “bit” may seem out of place, or irrelevant. But its not, if plastic in the panel is the end product, is the end of the life cycle. It defeats the purpose of “ending our reliance on fossil fuels”.
And as for the last 2 bits, these might be extreme examples. Yet, you have to consider that, the world is full of extremes. Conditions on the worlds highways are extreme, and have to be able to handle those extremes.
Right now, a flipped semi or car results in only minor property damage (with hopefully, minor injury and no loss of life). But will these panels, add in a few hundred (or thousand) more to the bill?
How about those other situations, either natural or man driven. For example, a large fire on (or near) a roadway. A tornado going over a stretch of roadway. A hurricane (or other event) covering thousands of these tiles in corrosive salt water.
Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Katrina had bills running in the billions afterwards. Would employing technologies like this, increase this amount?
Also see Crowd Funding – The Risks to see my take on what I believe would be the reaction to showing off this idea to the Dragons Den crowd.