Solar Roadways to Extinction
All over the country, people are talking about Solar Roadways, the futuristic electricity generation/smart highway technology developed by husband and wife team Scott and Julie Brusaw. The startup’s crowdfunding campaign has almost doubled its $1million goal needed to transition from development to production stage. Their promotional video, “Solar FREAKIN’ Roadways!” has garnered over 7.5 million hits, while their Facebook page has tallied over 45,000 likes. Musician Julian Lennon, actor Mark Ruffalo, and writer Margaret Atwood are all singing the company’s praises.
According to its website, Solar Roadway’s goal is to “…cover all concrete and asphalt surfaces that are exposed to the sun with Solar Road Panels.” Not only would these panels “…produce over three times the electricity that we currently use in the United States,” thereby leading “…to the end of our dependency on fossil fuels of any kind,” they would also include embedded LEDs which would warn drivers about potential dangers ahead, protect wildlife, and promote safer nighttime driving. What’s more, service tunnels flanking the roadways would provide housing for an underground electric distribution system. And embedded heating elements would prevent ice- and snow-buildup, eradicating the need for costly plowing and salting. All of which sounds quite promising indeed—at least on the surface.
Pieces in the Huffington Post, the Singularity Hub, and Jalopnick help dig beneath that surface, exposing some glaring problems. Chief of which: cost. To replace every road in the nation would run $56 trillion, more than triple 2014’s national GDP. The Brusaws maintain that the roads would pay for themselves after 22 years, but persuading cash-strapped and overextended state and federal governments to foot the bill might prove challenging, to say the least.
Another problem is storage. Even if the Brusaw’s estimated potential output of 14.95 billion Kilowatts turns out to be accurate, this power would be available only intermittently. In wintertime and on cloudy days output would plummet; at night it would cease altogether. A far more effective and cost-efficient way of producing comparable wattage would be to construct multiple solar-thermal systems (like Spain’s PS10 plant) which concentrate heat in a medium such as water or molten salt which can then be released during times of low output.
Embedded LEDs raise additional concerns. Electrical engineer David Forbes writes, “A big thing is made of having LEDs embedded in the roadway to provide changeable signage. This is a wonderful idea. Until a teenage hacker gets into the system and makes opposing traffic lanes merge into each other for kicks.”
There are also durability, maintenance, and drivability concerns. How will the glass panels be kept clean? How will they respond to chemical spills or fires? No one really knows.
In fairness, the Brusaw’s never claimed that Solar Roadways was ready for primetime. “We’re aware that this won’t happen overnight. We’ll need to start off small: Driveways, bike paths, patios, sidewalks, parking lots, playgrounds, etc. This is where we’ll learn our lessons and perfect our system.”
But even if they do succeed, there are other, more fundamental concerns. Such as whether we as stewards of the Earth ought to be investing time and energy refining a system which, at bottom, would only perpetuate the worst aspects of consumerism. After all, the interstate road system is nothing if not the very conduit by which plundered resources are siphoned from source to destination. Roads and highways serve as the veins and arteries of the consumerist body, enabling the conversion of raw materials into durable goods, and those goods into toxic waste. Indeed, if arresting climate change were truly our goal, we need only sever those veins and arteries.
Much of Solar Roadways appeal arises from its tacit promise that consumers needn’t make significant sacrifices. The problem, the logic goes, isn’t with individualized motoring itself, but the means by which that motoring is carried out. The promise of Solar Roadways allows us to believe that our children and grandchildren will grow up to be happy motorists, that our ravenously consumerist way of life will continue ad infinitum. The same is true with the ‘green’ movement more generally. The change offered by the mainstream is never substantive or fundamental; it is always cosmetic. Blame is always pinned on insufficiently efficient technology. If we could just get past this clumsy stage in our technological evolution, they argue, everything would be fine. And yet, as history has evinced, every new technological breakthrough elicits ever more complex obstacles to be surmounted, requiring ever more technological innovation—i.e. ecosystem destruction—and so on until the Earth’s resources are exhausted.
Imagine a crowdfunding campaign centered around a public transportation project. Or walkable towns. Imagine a Youtube video toting the benefits of a low-energy, anti-consumerist, communal-based lifestyle. A video promoting library computers in favor of the wasteful personal computer. Imagine a video that shows ingenious ways of repurposing discarded bicycles. A video that promotes the taboo notion that the solution to the world’s problem lies not in covering every roadway with expensive solar panels, but in simply using less. Would such a video go viral? Would its crowdfunding campaign attract the attention of famous writers and musicians? If a Facebook friend shared a video urging you to travel less, to wash your clothes less, to shower less, to work less, to discard less, to use less—would you ‘like’ it? If the video suggested that the way to save the world is to stop murdering it, would you donate $5 to its implementation?
Make no mistake about it: Solar Roadways offers nothing less than the promise of consumerism’s continuation. The illusion that we need not fundamentally rework our lifestyles is a powerful one. But the more we procrastinate in admitting to ourselves the truth of our unsustainable ways, the more we persist in hanging our hopes on chimerical inventions and myopic innovations, the more sudden and spectacular will be the collapse that returns us to our rightful place within the ecosystem.