It seems the wait for the first solar roadways in America might soon be over. In the small town of Sandpoint, Idaho, plans are already underway to replace public asphalt and concrete surfaces with solar panels as early as next year.
Scott and Julie Brusaw, the husband and wife team who recently took the Internet by storm with their Solar FREAKIN’ Roadways! Indiegogo campaign, have announced plans to move their company’s operations to Sandpoint this year to begin installing solar panels throughout the city.
The project, which will include replacing downtown sidewalks, an airport tarmac, a welcome center parking lot and an Amtrak station platform with Scott’s revolutionary solar panels, would make the northern Idaho municipality the first solar roadway city in the country.
City officials believe that by transforming the quaint community 30 miles south of the Canadian border into Solar Roadways first public pilot program, Sandpoint stands to become a premier destination for eco-tourism.
Though Sandpoint is slated to be the first beneficiary of Scott’s solar revolution, solar panel roadways could be popping up elsewhere in the very near future, both across the nation and throughout the globe.
Since launching his Indiegogo campaign, Scott says that he has been inundated with requests for his solar panel roadway surfaces from businesses, city governments and private citizens hailing from all over the world.
According to Scott, if every roadway surface utilized his solar technology, our nation would generate up to three times more electricity than we currently use. Not only would it meet and exceed our domestic energy demands, but it could eliminate as much as three quarters of America’s carbon emissions from vehicles and fossil fuels.
Solar Roadways notes other advantages that solar cells have over traditional concrete and asphalt surfaces as well. The panels can be quickly and easily replaced with little training required of maintenance crews, conceivably cutting down on roadway repair times that result in billions of dollars in lost productivity each year.
Moreover, the panels can use stored energy to heat the roadway surfaces to melt snow and ice, creating safer driving conditions in the winter and reducing the overall cost of snow removal.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the solar road concept is that the panels are designed to interact with both each other and their surroundings. Scott equipped each of the cells with LED lights that can virtually display anything from road lines to warnings of stopped traffic up ahead.
When Scott started his crowdfunding campaign on April 21 to coincide with Earth Day, he set his fundraising goal at a seemingly ambitious $1 million. As of Tuesday, Solar Roadways has raised more than $2 million, making it the most successful Indiegogo campaign in the site's history.
The viral video that helped propel the initially sluggish campaign into overdrive, voluntarily produced by Solar Roadways advocate Michael Nepham, has been viewed more than 16 million times on YouTube, underlining the public’s zeal for Scott’s idea.
“When we crossed 2 million (views), I think it started to hit us what’s happening here,” Scott says. “It’s so humbling to think about people all over the world getting behind this and giving money towards making it happen. That is an overwhelming feeling.”
What makes the outpouring of support especially gratifying for Scott is that it validates his lifelong dream more than 50 years in the making.
A Revolution’s Humble Beginnings
Scott and Julie first met as toddlers, growing up in neighboring houses in Idaho. When they were young, Scott and Julie would get together for daily play dates as Julie's mother babysat the two kids while Scott's parents were away at work.
During these play dates, Scott would spend hours playing with his favorite toy, a racetrack that sent trigger-controlled cars spiraling around an electric circuit.
“My brainstorm as a 6-year-old was, ‘if we could make all roads electric, then kids could drive.”
The idea stuck with him his whole life.
In middle school and high school, Scott would fantasize about electric roads, doodling sketches of his concept in his school notebooks. While in college, he pursued a degree in electrical engineering, hoping that his technical expertise would allow him to one day bring his idea to fruition.
Ten years ago, he saw his opportunity.
Al Gore had just released "An Inconvenient Truth" and everybody started talking about global warming for the first time. Still, no one seemed to be able to come up with a viable solution to fix the problem.
Scott wondered, “Why doesn’t somebody fix it? I hear about it on the news every night and nobody’s fixing it because I didn’t really understand the problem yet.” “I kind of got irritated because engineers fix things. They create solutions and nobody was creating a solution.”
Then one day, Julie turned to him and said, “Remember those electric roads that have been driving you crazy your whole life? Could you make those out of solar panels?”
Though he initially considered the idea impossible, the notion lingered in his mind. He began considering the possibility of placing solar panels in a structurally engineered casing similar to an airplane black box.
After contacting researchers at Penn State University and the University of Dayton, he learned that specially reinforced glass was his best option.
Still, there were challenges. He had to figure out a way to manufacture the glass encasing in a way that would provide enough traction for pedestrians and vehicles traveling at high speeds, even in wet conditions, while remaining transparent enough to allow light to penetrate the solar cells.
Struggling to find a solution, Scott wasn’t sure how to proceed. Then, he learned that in New York City, near the entrance of Madison Square Garden, there was a rolling marquee underneath glass sidewalk surface.
Scott was able to acquire a piece of the glass and sent it to a traction-testing lab.
He learned that the glass complied with requirements outlined in the Americans with Disabilities Act for pedestrian use, and subsequent lab tests found that it had enough traction to stop a vehicle traveling at 40 mph in the distance required by federal regulations.
Determined to develop a surface that could be used for highways, Scott began aggressively working to improve the glass' traction. With his final prototype, Scott created a glass surface that could withstand vehicles weighing up to 250,000 pounds, three times the legal limit, and bring a vehicle traveling at 80 mph to a stop in the required distance.
He had his highway glass.
In 2006, Scott had just wrapped up a contract engineering job in Italy and Julie recommended that he take a year off to see if anyone was interested in the solar roadways idea.
He wasn’t sure who to approach with the idea, so he launched what he describes as “a horrible website with just a green background and yellow lettering” detailing his idea and plans.
A month after launching the website, TreeHugger stumbled across it and ran a story featuring the solar roadway concept.
The coverage resulted in Scott receiving an invitation to travel to Virginia to present his ideas to the government contracting firm, Booz Allen Hamilton.
There, Scott was told that his climate change vision was noble, but no one would fund it.
A Booz Allen Hamilton employee approached him afterwards and said, “What you really have is an intelligent road and a smart grid, and those are the buzzwords going around Washington right now. If you change the way you’re presenting it, the end result will be the same but you’ll get funded.”
In the crowd was a member of the Federal Highway Administration who asked Scott if he was staying in town long enough to present his solar roadways idea to his colleagues.
Scott agreed and met with federal officials to brainstorm ways to retrofit solar panels on existing roads.
Then in 2009, the government issued a solicitation for a new type of paving material that would pay for itself over its lifespan. Scott applied for and won the $100,000 research grant.
After enlisting help from the academic community to publish a series of white papers discussing the viability of his design, the Federal Highway Administration granted Scott $750,000 in second round funding, which he used to build a prototype solar roadway in his driveway.
That driveway is now featured in the viral video that turned Solar Roadways into a worldwide sensation overnight.
While the federal funding allowed Scott to build his first prototype, the Indiegogo funding will be allocated for hiring engineers and full-time manufacturers to produce and install his roadway solar cells, which until now, have been entirely made by hand.
Scott is hopeful that by expanding his operation and manufacturing capabilities, he can sooner bring his solar roadways to the individuals that helped crowdfund his project.
That would be no small task, considering that according to Indiegogo's data, the campaign received donations from all 50 states and 42 different countries.
But Scott is hopeful that younger generations can provide the push needed to spur wider adoption of his Solar Roadways project.
“I like what I’m seeing out of your generation,” he says. “You care about the planet. You’re making a difference.”
Scott encourages young people to voice their support for renewable energy projects like Solar Roadways to their representatives in Congress and in their local government.
“Politicians are going to go where the votes are. If the majority of people in their district want a solar roadway, or they want windmills or tax subsidies for rooftop solar, that’s when they’re going to listen.”
Still, it seems that governments and businesses are already heading the call.
Scott says that overseas contractors have approached him saying, “We want to bring this to Europe. We want to bring this to Africa. We want to bring this to Australia”
“The outpouring of support has been tremendous.”
It's an outpouring of support that reaffirms the fundamental American value that if you dream big enough and work hard enough, anything is possible.