It’s been called the Mother Road and the Main Street of America, but soon, Route 66 will become the testing ground for an experiment that developers hope may change our roadways. After some delays, Solar Roadways’ hexagonal glass panels will be laid over a sidewalk near a rest stop in Conway, Missouri, once a waystation for motorists on the famous highway that helped bring Americans west.
This small test, according to staff at the Missouri Department of Transportation, will start by early December and be the first public trial of the Solar Roadways technology by a U.S. Department of Transportation. A pilot public installation in Sandpoint, Idaho, just opened in October (and has its own webcam), and in Baltimore, which is scheduled to be conducted by the Abell Foundation in October. Two European agencies are also testing this type of futuristic technology, which begs the question: Are solar roads closer to reality than we think?
Solar Roadways, (better known as Solar “Freakin” Rodaways via their wildly popular fundraising video), the glass-covered solar panels that could turn roads into power plants, was developed by a husband-and-wife team Scott and Julie Brusaw in Idaho. They received a two-year, $750,000 Small Business Innovative Research contract by the U.S. DOT to conduct tests in 2011, and a few years later, they captured the public’s attention with an Indiegogo campaign that helped them raise more than $2.2 million through crowdfunding.
The concept seemed too good to be true. Beyond turning highways into green energy generators, the panels would also heat themselves, eliminating the need for salt and snow plows, and contain lights that could replace street signs of deliver warnings to motorists. Most importantly, the solar roads would pay for themselves.
The idea was met with a heavy dose of cynicism: They’re expensive, wildly inefficient compared to regular solar panels, and potentially unsafe. Why create an entirely new system of solar panels when rooftops around the world sit empty?
But Solar Roadways also saw widespread support, and now it’s about to get a real-world test in Missouri, as part of the state’s Road2Tomorrow initiative, which is piloting new technology for the highway of the future.
A rest station sidewalk is pretty far from the founder’s vision of smart, glass-covered highways snaking across the country, soaking up the sun and powering our green energy future. But it’s also a necessary part of the slow process of gaining the government approvals necessary to be placed on actual highways.
Along with a number of other current tests and pilot being conducted by European engineering firms and local governments, it suggests that while solar roadways still have a very long way to go, there’s been plenty of progress on the road to adoption. According to Laurel McKean, an engineer with the Missouri Department of Transportation running the test, these small incremental tests are the right way for these kind of eccentric ideas find mainstream acceptance.
“Testing something regardless of the naysayers—isn’t that how we’ve grown as a culture and society?” she says. “To give someone who has an extraordinary idea the ability to test it out—I thought I’d never get the chance to do something like this. It’s amazing to be part of the scientific process.”