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A Twist in the Drive to Pave Roads With Solar Panels

Scott and Julie Brusaw are working to replace more asphalt with solar cells—and possibly link the panels up with driverless cars.

Determined to solve the climate crisis, Scott and Julie Brusaw founded Solar Roadways after learning the U.S. had over 72,000 square kilometers of asphalt and concrete surfaces exposed to the sun.
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Our roads could generate energy, melt snow, direct traffic, and even drive our cars, if some of Scott and Julie Brusaw's visions become reality.

The couple behind the Sandpoint, Idaho-based company Solar Roadways attracted many fans three years ago with a video and online fundraising campaign that drew more than $2 million.

With those assets, plus funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation, the team has been able to refine their “smart” road tiles, which contain solar cells, LED lights, a heating element, and wireless communication. Earlier this year, they completed a public installation of 30 panels in Sandpoint, complete with the ability to display an image of Earth. In the coming months, they will install small arrays in Colorado and Maryland. Yet they see much bigger potential for the panels than just using paved space to generate energy for the grid.

Here, they talk about their progress over the last few years and what the future could hold.

Tell me about the video that ended up getting you so much attention—it's at more than 22 million views on YouTube.

Scott: We were just wrapping our second contract with the Federal Highway Administration, and we had built a parking lot made of 108 of our panels [in Sagle, Idaho]. We provided footage to a fan who volunteered to make that video. It was really a humbling experience, and it was eye-opening.

Julie: We knew it was a matter of time before it would take off. It's been a difficult journey just because we didn't have the funding to do it. We're in our third contract with the U.S. Department of Transportation, which has been fantastic, and that funds our research, but it doesn't help us with manufacturing. IndieGogo funding gave us enough to get prototyping equipment and get started, but now we've solved the engineering challenges that we needed to solve, and we're ready for full production. That's going to require about $15 million.

What are some of the concepts you're working on now?

Scott: We were talking to a group that does dynamic charging for electric vehicles. Dynamic charging is when you're in an electric vehicle and somebody's put charging plates in the street, so as you drive over it, it gives your battery a charge. There are universities and companies doing that, but right now they have to dig a hole in the asphalt and drop their transmitter plate and get power to it somehow, which isn't practical.

[Also] Google invited us out to their Mountain View headquarters and gave us a ride in their driverless car. They guide those autonomous vehicles with GPS satellites, which are pretty accurate, but not deadly accurate. Whereas when you bolt one of our panels down, it's got a fixed [location]. It knows exactly where you are. In theory, the road could actually guide the car. You could say, take me to Walmart, and take a nap, and it will even find a parking place for you and wake you up when you're ready.

Julie: But we have to get in a massive amount of infrastructure to enable both of those technologies, so we're in a hurry to try to do that.

What's your focus in terms of getting to a commercial-scale project? Where would you really like to see this implemented?

Julie: One of my pet things is school playgrounds. In addition to taking the school off the grid and making it green, we could create educational software [where kids could run to different places on a graphical map, for example]. That's a way for kids to get exercise and learn while keeping their playground snow- and ice-free.

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An artist's rendition shows what a road paved with the Solar Roadways panels might look like.

Scott: We're going after the non-critical applications first—driveways, parking lots, playgrounds—where if something were to go wrong, it's not going to stop traffic. The first roads will be residential roads, which are slow-moving with lightweight vehicles, and we'll work our way up to the fast lane of the highway. We can put these panels on any hard surface under the sun. We've gotten a lot of interest from airports recently.

You've also gotten some naysayers. How would you counter the skeptics?

Scott: In the beginning, when it was just an idea, half the people thought we were crazy and half the people thought we were genius. The first complaints were, you can't drive on glass, because the first time it rains everybody will slide off the road, which would be true if you didn't have traction. But we put traction on the glass.

Then they said, it will never withstand the weight of a truck. We had it load-tested, and it will withstand a 250,000-pound truck, which is over three times the legal limit on our highways. So they dropped that argument. Slowly but surely, every time they'd come up with a new reason it won't work, we would prove it did work.

The only one they've got left is the price. That's what we're working on—that's the last hurdle to get across. That's what mass manufacturing will do for us.

What advice would you give to others who are pursuing their own big ideas?

Scott: Just don't give up. Skeptics aren't something new. I just finished reading a book on the Wright brothers. They flew their airplane in 1903. The local newspapers were ridiculing them, saying, these crazy guys are going to kill themselves. Even Wilbur got so upset in 1902 [after] they crashed their glider, he told his brother, no man will ever fly for a thousand years. The very next year, they flew.

Everybody's telling you you can't do something: If you start listening to that, you'll stop. But you've got to believe in what you're doing.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.