Solar roadways could be paths to energy independence

“Walking on sunshine” was the headline World Architecture News gave to its October review of the world’s first solar-paneled pavement, installed at George Washington University in Ashburn, Virginia in 2012. Symbolically, the 27-panel walkway runs between Innovation Hall and Exploration Hall. It generates power for 450 LED pathway lights, which illuminate the semi-translucent panels themselves. Additional solar panels are embedded in a trellis, supplying power to Innovation Hall.

“The Solar Walk is a great example of George Washington University’s commitment to sustainability and a reflection of the university’s forward thinking mentality. With an ever-increasing need for alternative energy solutions, it is critical to foster new trends such as this in building sustainable technologies. We are very excited about this project and proud to be a trailblazer in the development of new methods and sustainability,” said Eric Selbst, the university’s Senior Land Use Planner.

George Washington University is home to the GW Solar Institute (http://solar.gwu.edu) The walkway was designed by Onyx Solar, specialists in Designed by Building Integrated Photovoltaics (BIPV.)

GWU’s solar walkway is a glimpse into the future. Located on the grounds of a private university, the walkway isn’t likely to support heavy vehicles. In contrast, it would take massive effort to convert America’s highways into solar generators. But this effort is already underway.

Electrical engineer Scott Brusaw has raised a third of the one million dollar capital needed to convert paved roads to solar power generators for surrounding buildings. His photovoltaic panels can be used to pave tarmacs and parking lots, as well as streets and highways. The panels are made of thick hardened glass that has tested strong enough to support trucks several times heavier than legally required.

Are solar highways feasible? According to Neil Fromer, executive director of the Resnick Sustainability Institute at the California Institute of Technology, large-scale installations face three hurdles: safety concerns, testing, and paperwork. He recalls that “the regulatory challenges of putting solar panels on rooftops were significant over the last twenty or thirty years,” and that “an avalanche” of support made them widely available. Electrical safety is also a concern, because highways aren’t controlled as much as rooftops.

Fromer is realistic, but very supportive, of the idea of solar highways, saying “the tremendous amount of solar energy that hits the Earth’s surface in an hour is enough to power the planet for a year.”

Brusaw’s Solar Roadways site is at http://www.solarroadways.com/intro.shtml Brusaw’s crowdfunding efforts can be seen at https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/solar-roadways