Paving the Way Towards our Future: An Analysis of the Viability of Solar Roadways

An Idaho-based company might just have the solution to the issues that currently exist for solar energy. Solar Roadways, founded in 2006, came up with the ingenious idea to replace all United States paved roadways with durable and versatile hexagonal solar panels. On May 18, 2014, a nonmember of the Solar Roadways Company released a video outlining the benefits from such a system, including easy maintenance, ability to be heated in cold climates, and versatility. “SOLAR FREAKIN’ ROADWAYS!” was heard all around the internet not even a week after the technology’s promotional video was released. That was just the beginning.

Right now, the United States is facing the issue of deciding between maintaining poor infrastructure and updating it. The government, on both national and state levels, has not been able to make a proper call yet. As a result of this indecision, highway associations, and departments of public works across the United States have been making slapdash repairs that don’t last nearly long enough and end up causing more issues in the long term. The American Society for Civil Engineers (ASCE) released a quadrennial report in 2013 grading each sector of America’s infrastructure. Since solar roadways have the potential to affect electrical, bridge, and roadway infrastructure, the main focus in funding changes will be centered on those three aspects. The Federal Highway Administration estimates that $170 billion must be spent annually through 2020 to significantly improve the conditions and performance of roadway infrastructure in the United States, representing an increase of $69 billion over current spending. Additionally, the Federal Highway Administration estimates that $20.5 billion must be spent annually through 2028 to improve overall conditions, an $8 billion over current levels. The ASCE estimates that between distributing energy and transmitting it from generative sources to distribution chains, the United States will spend close to $94 billion annually through 2020, a substantial increase from the current $63 billion. All of these estimates will amount to a grand total of $108 billion in extra funding per year, and is simply estimated to be the amount necessary  for the United States to catch up to, not exceed, current infrastructure standards. Conversely, The Economist in June of 2014, reported that implementing a system to replace the entirety of America’s roadways would cost an estimated $1 trillion. Furthermore, this figure does not take into account the research and development that would be necessary in order to implement solar roadways. Put another way, it is without a doubt that, in terms of principal costs, it would be more convenient and cheaper to maintain the status quo for roads in the United States. If Solar Roadways was simply a paving material, it wouldn’t be the cheaper option to  cure the United States’ infrastructure crisis.

Luckily, Solar Roadways has possibilities that far exceed those of asphalt and concrete. First and foremost, solar roadways would provide a national path towards energy independence. According to 2013 figures from the Energy Information Administration, fossil fuels, the majority of which are imported, make up 67% of the electricity generated in the United States. Constantly functioning solar panels, covering 31,250 square miles of roads, parking lots, driveways, playgrounds, bike paths, and sidewalks in the United States could change those proportions. According to Solar Roadways’ own estimates, their technology spread across the country could produce over three times the electricity that we currently use in the United States every year. Solar roadways would thus not only allow for sustainable energy independence, but would also allow for enough of a cushion to maintain energy independence even in the most drastic of situations.

Secondly, Solar Roadways could help improve energy efficiency in the Unite States. One current large issue with energy production in the United States is that energy grids are removed from energy production, especially when it comes to nonrenewable sources. However, the way solar roadways are designed would allow for the grid to run concurrently with energy production in an efficient way and could help the United States  control overall costs of energy.

Beyond the primary issue of energy, Solar roadways could improve transportation infrastructure in several other ways. Solar roadways could significantly improve highway safety. Current levels of accidents per year on asphalt roadways hover around 6.5 million accidents. Through the use of heated and illuminated panels that are easily replaceable and have storm drains installed, roadways will have increased visibility. Giving drivers more control on roads during rough driving conditions should improve overall highway safety.

Finally, Solar Roadways would have the advantage of easy recyclability. The tiles created by Solar Roadways, from the glass surface to the inner components, are entirely recyclable. In contrast, concrete and asphalt recycling are labor and capital intensive processes that are not easily undertaken by any company or government institution that seeks to repave roads, sidewalks, or the like.

A report from the National Economic Council and the President’s Council of Economic Advisers from July of 2014 illustrates that “a high quality transportation network is vital to a top performing economy.” It has already been established that the United States’ transportation infrastructure is of poor quality and may in fact be a drag on economic growth and productivity. The process introducing solar panel laden roads may also prove to be a prime opportunity for the federal government to implement more stringent quality standards on infrastructure.

Of course there remain many large issues and question marks as to the feasibility of implementing a nationwide conversion to Solar Roadways. The largest issue that arises when switching a major amount of asphalt and concrete production to solar panel production is labor displacement. The asphalt production industry employs somewhere around 300,000 Americans, and the concrete production industry employs close to 170,000 Americans. Solar roadways thus needs to make up for close to 450,000 jobs in manufacturing, engineering, and maintenance if it can be a viable alternative for the United States to accept the technology and continue job growth. Unfortunately, projections on exactly how many manufacturing and engineering jobs Solar Roadways can produce  are unavailable due to a lack of empirical evidence.

Furthermore, solar roadways have only been produced and tested as successful prototypes in a small shop setting in Idaho. They have not been produced on a large scale. Solar Roadways has yet to analyze the impacts that different weather and geographic conditions can possibly have on their product. Making the move to mass production will also be a significant challenge. These specialized solar panels are meticulously crafted on a small scale that has not yet been translated into an industrial level operation. Before solar roadways can be implemented, the company needs to iron out all of the possible issues that can occur during mass production or implementation. While issues that can arise by the end of the prototype phase will be figured out, the fact remains that the technology is not viable in its current situation and cannot be adopted by the United States as is.

Finally, strong political interest groups may also prove to be a stumbling block for the energy infrastructure startup. Established industries such as asphalt and big oil have political clout and are certain to lobby against roadways. Oil is one of the largest industries in America and possessed deeply entrenched political power in Washington, rivaled only by the American Medical Association and the National Rifle Association. Solar Roadways, if it wants to find a solid place in America, will thus have to face and combat considerable political clout.

There is no doubt that Solar Roadways has great prospects as a technology. It will help the world reduce its carbon footprint and dependence on non-renewable sources of energy. Solar Roadways offers important improvements to the current system of highway infrastructure ranging from safety to energy efficiency. While nothing is yet concrete for solar roadways in terms of implementation, the potential for solar roadways, especially in a country with thousands of miles of roads like the United States, is limitless.