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. 

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.