Why I Love Solar Freakin' Roadways

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The internet has been abuzz about a project that proposes to convert traffic surfaces like highways and roads into solar arrays, effectively turning every U.S. road into a solar panel. Raising near immediate enthusiasm and full investment after the idea was launched on a crowd funding site called Indie-go-go, the Solar Roadways proposal just as quickly was hit with extreme criticism as being completely impossible to accomplish. In the few short months since asking for funding, the flame wars have been raging over the viability of the plan.  Wading into the argument about the feasibility of creating solar energy collecting roads, I want to make the following bold statement;

It doesn't matter if Solar Roadways work or not.

Husband and wife team Scott and Julie Brusaw came up with the idea of using hardened solar panels with a variety of smart features embedded in the roadways to convert the single use road system into a renewable energy resource. One of the issues inherent to solar is that it takes physical space to put enough solar panels out to gather the sun's energy.... a lot of space. The Brusaws reasoned that by using highways and roads (all 2.65 MILLION paved miles of them) no new space would need to be claimed, we could just assign a dual use for the land and kill two birds with one stone (as it were.) What they envisioned was a modular, durable solar panel that could be linked together to form a driveable surface and that provide not just power from the sun, but also advanced driving technology. LEDs embedded in the road panel could form flexible lanes, give drivers information or alert them to hazards like children or animals entering the roadway. A heating element would be included to keep the roads clear of ice and snow. A true 21st century re-imagining of how we use roads. The idea was hatched in 2006 and after some hard work, the couple opened up the idea to the crowd funding site Indie-go-go to start raising cash for exploring the idea and building prototype panels.

As soon as the funds started to pour in, the questions started as well. The main criticisms fall into two camps: the first camp says the science (engineering/technology/logistics) are unworkable or not ready, and the second camp says it simply wouldn't work from a cost perspective. To sum up the arguments of experts and other critics up in a sentence: "You can't make that work, and even if you could it would cost far too much money."

While experts and armchair critics tear apart the proposal's practicality, I suggest they miss one key point. The question isn't whether on not it will work, the question is "are there benefits to trying to make it work?" Consider this; we seem to pinch pennies when it comes to environmental endeavors while dumping buckets of cash into less crucial challenges. If it is worth spending millions to build enormous sports complexes for people throw or kick a ball around in, or a to develop a pharmaceutical that will prevent men's hair from falling out, it is surely worth investing in this idea just to explore what the limits of solar are.  We are spending a infinitesimal fraction of the money we need to be on researching not just so-called  "Green Technology" like solar, but on revolutionizing and improving the way we live in our day to day lives. We will never get to a clean, sustainable future unless we expend some money and effort exploring what is possible. Funding this project and allowing the Brusaws to see how farthe idea can go seems to have merit without worrying about certainty of success.

For those stalwart critics, however, here are a few more reasons this particular project has merit.

It Demonstrates Demand for a Green Future

First and foremost it needs to be said that the rapid funding and enthusiasm for this proposal shows the public is willing to invest in green tech, and this is something that should not go unappreciated. At its core, the support hints at a symbolic desire for a visionary remaking of our society, where green high tech is the centerpiece. This stands in contrast to the argument that cost is an overriding argument for any idea to pass muster; the rapid funding of the Solar Roadways project shows the public is willing to throw down real money to invest in major projects and research. It is important to remember that this is not a zero sum game, where spending money for this research deprives it from, say, wildlife conservation. It demonstrates an important willingness to expand the pool of cash for Eco-innovation rather than create fights over limited funds.

But still, wouldn't that money be better spent on X?

There is no end to valuable, necessary environmental projects that need funding. This is a fact. We need to consider that one of beautiful things about this project is that it thinks big, not small about solving our environmental problems... even if goals are unattainable. Many of the environmental measures we concentrate on focus on the personal level and leave large structural issues unaddressed and unresolved. By changing the focus to large projects, it creates a new frame for the public conversation of solutions, properly scaling up the level of solutions to global warming and energy problems need to be if we are to solve them. It changes the imperative from "how to save and reuse that plastic bottle" to "what do we do with our global energy system?" This scaled up conversation is sorely lacking in the public discussion of environmental solutions.

It also has the benefit of changing the mindset from business-conservatism, bottom-line, cost effective thinking to an explorative innovation and research mindset. This open approach is similar to the way our country openly experiments with defense ideas, with concerns about cost made secondary to breaking new ground. The DARPA Agency explores outside the box ideas and projects to push military innovation and the results often flow from tackling technical problems with the proposed idea, rather than from the original project actually becoming successful. Expanding this generous style of exploration outside of the realm of defense is beyond prudent, given the dilemma we face with global warming. Above all, when considering the expense, we should remember that you don't have to accomplish your goal to gain knowledge.

Lastly, the buzz generated by this idea has been a great way introduce the public to the need to update our infrastructure and the modernize our energy distribution with a Smart Electrical Grid. The average person knows little about how our nation provides and delivers power, and less about how antiquated and strapped that system actually is. The Solar Roadways project deserves the money it raised just for creating a public discussion of innovations for renewable energy. Through that discussion people are learning about how to truly implement renewable energy systems (even if it is through exploring the problems) and the need to have a much more robust and more efficient energy system throughout the world.

Solar Roadways probably won't go far, but maybe the ideas and advances that come next from trying to make them work will be even better. 

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