The great “solar freakin’ roadways” debate

From a solar roadway fan. Image: Thunderf00t via YouTube.

Back in 2006, a couple from Idaho formed a small company named "Solar Roadways Incorporated". Scott and Julie Brusaw had a new, and, they hoped, revolutionary idea: they wanted to replace every road, car park, driveway, pavement and patio in America with solar panels. 

The US Department of Transportation thought this was a pretty good idea, too: in 2009, it granted the company a $100,000 small business grant to build small parking lot covered in the panels. In 2011, it gave them another $750,000. The final product is a 12 by 36 foot area covered in hexagon shaped tiles which produce solar energy, and self-heat to stop snow and ice from sticking. They also light up to create road markings, or to indicate there's an animal on the road. Here it is: 

The Brusaws admire their first solar roadway. Image: Solar Roadways Incorporated. 

Excited to start producing their invention on a mass scale, the Brusaws launched an Indiegogo crowdsourcing campaign to raise funds, complete with a campaign video aiming to appeal to the internet generation with jolly animations, and the catchy name “solar freakin' roadways”. This, surprisingly enough, worked – so well, in fact, that the video went viral. At time of writing, it has almost 20m views. 

And then came the backlash. 

Videos and articles appeared, from both reputable scientists, and the kind who have "marked for deletion" Wikipedia pages. They slammed the idea as neither economically nor scientifically sound. A single Reddit thread discussing criticisms of the idea from YouTube user Thunderf00t – who has made several videos debunking the roadways, as well as several more debunking feminism, to give you a flavour of his views – stretches to over 1,000 comments. It was as close to Gamergate as any debate about energy-generating paving stones will ever get. The whole thing was quite remarkable.

Despite this, the IndieGogo campaign was the site's most successful ever, and the Brusaws raised over $2.25m from donors in 165 countries. They can name Star Trek actor George Takei as among their fans. 

Now, the Brusaws have rebranded the company “Solar Roadways – a real solution” (presumably to emphasise the veracity of the claims they’ve made for their invention), and have retreated with their Indiegogo cash to carry out more research and development. Meanwhiile, there’s a page on their site dedicated to, in their words, “clearing the freakin’ air”, and debunking various claims people have made about the roadways. Below are a few of the claims and counter-claims. 

Glass isn't the right material for roads

The critics say: As you might have noticed, roads and pavements are currently built from very strong materials like concrete and asphalt. Glass would, at first glance, be a somewhat unwise subsitute: it can shatter, for one, but it could also lose its transparency as it gets scuffed and covered in dirt. That, in turn, could stop light getting through to the solar panels.

The Brusaws say: The glass on the panels' surface is specially manufactured to be strong – it's "tempered", which makes it five to six times stronger than normal glass. On their site, they also have a complicated-looking chart of "hardness" which shows that plate glass is actually up to five times harder than asphalt anyway. Of course, it's still more likely to shatter – but they say that, because the glass is tempered, it would break "into little pebble-like pieces, without sharp edges". So, er, that's all right then. 

Cars will block the sunlight

The critics say: All the areas which would be covered by the panels under the Brusaw's masterplan – car parks, roads, etc. – are often covered up by parked or moving cars. This would limit the amount of sunlight that could get through to the panels. 

The Brusaws say: Yes, if a panel was covered, it wouldn't generate energy, but it wouldn't cause any problems for the rest of the system. The Brusaws are using "microinverters", which allow the panels to act independently of one another. This means that if one hexagonal tile is blocked, the others can carry on collecting energy. 

How much will this actually cost?

Cost relies on all sorts of factors: state budgets, the scale of production, the price of the finalised prototype, and the panels' durability. The Brusaws say they can't give a cost estimate per panel yet, not least because they're still building the panels by hand.

However, it's fair to say each one would be pretty tech-heavy, featuring lights and heaters on top of the solar material. And this comes with another downside, on top of the costs of production: as one redditor pointed out, "What's there to stop joe shmo from walking out of his house to the nearest road and helping himself to a couple thousand dollars worth of solar absorbing gadgetry?" Maintenance would also be more expensive than on other types of roads – though the couple claim the roads would pay for that themselves, through all the energy they're generationg. 

You can read more in the Brusaws' myth-busting post here. On the same page, the Brusaws also air their own theories on why they've received so much criticism: 

For some it's just too scary. They want to just keep things the same. Perhaps they are the descendants of those who argued that the earth was flat, that we didn't need cars because horses worked just fine, told the Wright Brothers they were out of their minds, or insisted that we'd never reach the moon.

Or perhaps they are the voices of larger entities who are now feeling threatened by the paradigm shift that is Solar Roadways.

As the debate rumbles on, their invention (or, as they call it, a “movement"), has had an indirect boost from events in a small Dutch village. Krommenie is home to the first solar road – actually a bike path – which opened in November 2014. The consortium that created the 70m-long path have said that the energy output so far has far outpaced even optimistic lab predictions: it’s already generated enough to power a one-person household for a year, apparently

For now, though, it seems most likely that the Brusaws' invention could be most easily put to use in limited ways, such as on private driveways on in schools: widespread scepticism implies that their dreamed of cross-USA rollout doesn't seem imminent. But then again, who knows? We did once think the earth was flat, after all. 


The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 

There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.