Solar Roadways

An example of a solar roadway


There are three days left before voting ends for the GE Ecomagination Challenge. For this contest, GE is fishing for great new ideas about the next gen-power. And Scott Brusaw thinks he has one.

There are over 25,000 square miles of road to swap out (41,000 square miles if you count highways, parking lots, pavement and "impermeable surfaces") in the U.S. It's an area almost the size of Ohio, and Scott wants to convert a lot of that pavement into a solar panels.

He thinks a system that converted 25,000 square miles of pavement into panels could produce three times the electricity the nation needs. The parking lot around a typical Wal-Mart could generate 10 times more power than the store uses each year -- even when it is full of cars.

So how would this work?

Scott says to just think of a black box in an airplane; that's a structurally engineered case that protects sensitive electronics from the worst of airline disasters. He thought if he could build a structurally engineered case to protect a solar panel from an 18-wheeler, his idea could work. But there was one hitch.

That structurally engineered case would have to be made from glass. Plastics -- even the toughest plastic -- will discolor in the sun. But material research labs are doing amazing things with glass. There's bomb resistant glass, glass as thin and pliable as paper. You can add textures so it's not slippery when it's wet.

How much would it cost?

The target price for a 12-foot by 12-foot panel is $10,000. Sounds steep, but Brusaw thinks each panel could produce enough electricity to pay for itself in just 22 years -- that's faster than most people pay off their mortgages. Still, replacing 25,000 square miles of pavement would cost more than $47 trillion. Then again, none of us would ever pay for gas again.

About the author

Steve Henn was Marketplace’s technology and innovation reporter for the entire portfolio of Marketplace programs until December 2011.

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