All about Solar Roadways: the promise versus the reality
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Remember Solar Roadways? To the uninitiated, they’re the small startup that sold many Americans a big dream: solving our climate change crisis by converting our existing road network into high-tech solar roadways.
Solar Roadways’ innovative product – specially-designed solar road panels – would make it all possible. Installed in place of traditional asphalt, these road panels would generate clean and renewable solar power while allowing regular vehicular traffic to pass smoothly overhead. Making solar roadways just a portion of our streets and highways would generate enough clean energy to meet all our needs, among many other benefits.
So where are these promised solar roadways? Will we be driving over them soon? Let’s go on a solar road trip and find out.
Since its founding in 2006, Idaho-based company Solar Roadways has been pushing the endless benefits of its product – most famously in their viral 2014 video, Solar FREAKIN' Roadways. Here's a look at some of them:
It's a compelling pitch, and it's easy to see why Solar Roadways has generated so much buzz. Solar Roadways has used it to win endorsements from numerous major celebrities, Indiegogo crowdfunding from 50,000 donors, multiple government research grants, and over six million dollars in raised capital, including $2.5 million in a recent (2021) StartEngine campaign.
It’s worth pointing out here that Solar Roadways Inc, the company, is different from solar roadways, the concept. Some other organizations and initiatives also work with solar road panels and similar products. We'll explore them later.
After successfully generating hype for so many years, what has Solar Roadways achieved so far? And what of the other companies working in this space?
Between 2016 and 2017, news circulated that a Solar Roadways installation on Route 66 in Missouri was in the works. However, the project was not for a roadway at all, but for a solar sidewalk alongside the highway. Whatever the case, the contract fell through (for unspecified reasons) before a single road panel was ever laid.
The only place their product has been used is in their pilot project: a small 150-square-foot installation of walkway in their hometown of Sandpoint, Idaho, installed in 2016. The initial rollout was underwhelming, suffering a fire in its electrical system and then failing to melt snow that fell upon it.
A solar roadway in Peachtree Corners, Georgia is apparently the only one currently operational in the U.S. It was installed in late 2020 using WattWay road panels. However, the project is very limited in scope and occupies a narrow strip within an autonomous vehicle test lane (pictured below). No project data has been shared, so it’s hard to say how it’s performing.
Blink and you’ll miss it: the City of Peachtree Corners’ solar roadway. Image source: Curiosity Lab
Solar roadways – and related solar pavement projects like solar bike paths and solar sidewalks – have been trialed in several countries worldwide. While most have been small pilot projects, two larger implementations stand out:
Here’s a 2018 video released by Chinese state media to promote the launch of the solar highway. There have been no official updates since.
The various solar roadway trials conducted so far have revealed numerous problems, and they’re proving hard to overcome. Here are the biggest concerns:
This long list of issues and challenges means that all solar roadway trials so far have yielded disappointing results. Although companies like Solar Roadways and French civil engineering giant Colas (the maker of WattWay) still hope to make it a workable option, that seems unlikely to happen soon – if ever.
There's already an affordable and scalable way to produce renewable energy via the use of standard photovoltaic (PV) solar systems, commonly known as solar panels.
When installed on rooftops (or custom ground-mounts), standard solar panels have long lifespans, high efficiency, and relatively low upfront costs. While the U.S. has only managed to install one solar roadway so far, there are already over three million solar panel installations nationwide.
Solar panels are seeing great success at the utility level. Solar energy plants built with them are now among our cheapest sources of energy production, and total solar capacity is expected to triple between 2022 and 2027.
Solar panels work just as well in homes, where a typical rooftop solar panel installation can cover 100% of energy usage and, depending on the location, save homeowners $50,000 or more in avoided utility bills.
You can learn more about residential solar in this home solar panel guide. Better yet, use the solar calculator below to estimate the costs and savings of installing solar panels on your roof.