A northern Idaho company that aims to transform U.S. highways into a vast energy-producing network is getting $750,000 from the federal government for the next phase of its project: A solar parking lot capable of sending electricity back to the power grid.
Solar Roadways, of Sagle, announced Wednesday it won a Small Business Innovation Research grant for its project from the Federal Highway Administration.
Company founders Scott and Julie Brusaw plan to use the cash to create a prototype parking lot for testing. But their real dream is for a road system built of 12-foot-by-12-foot solar panels rather than traditional asphalt.
Brusaw estimates the panels might cost three times more than asphalt but would produce electricity that could be sent back to the power grid, helping governments and private industry pay for them. He's hoping his work helps convince otherwise conservative, risk-averse road construction agencies that his panels are suitable for a rollout on an estimated 28,000 square miles of asphalt and concrete across the nation that get enough sun to produce electricity.
"It's a perfect time to do this, because our highway infrastructure is falling apart and our power infrastructure is falling is apart," Scott Brusaw told The Associated Press on Wednesday. "Both of them need to be rebuilt. This is a project that combines those two."
The technology could be made more financially viable through creative financing that includes federal and state subsidies for alternative power, tax breaks and investor-owned utilities' need for green energy to satisfy requirements being passed individually by states like Washington, Oregon and California, he said.
Even so, transportation experts say convincing highway agencies and others responsible for big asphalt and concrete projects to shift gears will be among Solar Roadways' biggest challenges.
Steve Albert, the director of the Western Transportation Institute at Montana State University in Bozeman, said he's familiar with Brusaw's work and is excited by its potential, but cautioned that highway and construction engineers are naturally risk-averse when adopting new materials that differ radically from tried-and-true asphalt.
"The big issue is, local, state and federal organizations involved in transportation are very slow to change," Albert said. "They're going to be real hesitant to try something that is a paradigm shift."
Albert said he would welcome the opportunity to test Solar Roadways' panels at his school's transportation proving ground at a former eastern Montana Army Air Corps base once home to pilots training for battle in World War II.
Previously, the Idaho company received $100,000 from the federal government for its startup project.
The company's structurally engineered panels, encased in sturdy, break-proof glass and connected by underground wires, include LED lights for road markers as well as heating elements. That's they wouldn't be subject to damaging freeze and thaw cycles and water penetration that leave traditional asphalt roads and concrete sidewalks cracked, potholed and broken, Brusaw said.
He estimates that one mile of solar roadway could eventually power as many as 500 homes.
The panels, which would include an embedded microprocessor for real-time control and communication with those controlling the power grid, would be designed to last at least 20 years.
"And at the end of that 20 years, you don't throw it away, you refurbish it," Brusaw said.
He hopes that after completing this next phase his company's contract with the federal highway agency is due to last two years he'll be ready for commercial production of panels for parking lots, driveways, walkways and other surfaces in locations such as playgrounds, amusement parks, patios, bike paths and even airports.
It's in these places where the panels will have to pass muster before Solar Roadway and its federal financiers in Washington will be ready to move on to highways that will require extremely robust durability standards.
"They told us, 'We're not going to let you start slapping them down on highways,'" Brusaw said. "They said, 'Start with parking lots, learn your lessons and go from there.'"