Update: Read about the solar roadways project in our follow-up pieces. We compared to some other prominent public works projects throughout history and took a closer look why projects like this one may raise concerns about the nature of donation crowdfunding.
In the first month since posting their project on Indiegogo, Idaho couple Scott and Julie Brusaw raised over $400,000, and were rapidly approaching half of their $1 million goal in the Friday prior to Memorial Day weekend. Their idea? Solar roadways.
Solar Roadways: A Great, Grand Idea
High-tech roads and parking lots that collect solar energy could eliminate the need for fossil fuels, move dangerous above-ground power lines underground, create widespread wastewater collection infrastructure, and create a system of self-powered LED displays under roads that could make driving safer by displaying important information to drivers as they need it. It looks amazing, it would be really incredible if it actually happened.
However, not to be a huge buzzkill, but it should be noted that this idea is also completely impractical.
It seems really terrible to point this out, given the visionary nature of this project, but there are times when a wet blanket may be necessary and, much as I hate to say it, I’m here to play that role. No matter how much you love the idea of solar roadways, I really don’t think it’s a bright idea to donate any money to these seemingly-wonderful people.
Distributed Generation Not THAT Novel an Idea
For starters, using otherwise unused space to generate solar power is not a new idea. It’s what people in the solar industry refer to as “distributed generation.”
In essence, solar power is still significantly costlier than most other options if you’re building a power plant. However, you CAN put solar panels in all sorts of places that are otherwise just taking up space. If you own a massive warehouse, you can’t very well build a tiny nuclear plant on its roof (it is, at the very least, extremely inadvisable). You can, however, install solar panels.
And the solar industry is focused on doing just that. China, for instance, has a stated goal of installing 8 gigawatts (that’s a lot) of solar power in the form of distributed generation this year. And the moment big box-store chains like Wal-Mart (WMT), office parks, warehouses, and office buildings can see the necessary results on their balance sheets, there’s going to be solar panels everywhere. This is closer to being a reality than most people realize, the price point is rapidly approaching the area where it makes financial sense.
So, with the millions and millions of acres of unused roof space in areas with heavy year-round sunshine, why solar roads?
So How Much Would These Cost?
But why NOT use our roads? I mean, roofs, roads, who cares, right? Well, in short, because we drive our cars there. Our big, metal, heavy cars. There’s currently a virtually endless supply of places you could install solar panels that DON’T have cars driving over them and, as such, don’t require fancy high-tech glass covering them. Or, for that matter, don't mean you have to worry about the long term wear-and-tear of millions of tons of steel and rubber driving over them at high speed every year.
This, I’m guessing, is why the question of cost doesn’t come up at any point in either the IndieGoGo video OR the couple’s website. It’s why their idea doesn’t actually make any sense. This is basically just a pitch for a new way to install solar capacity that would cost a lot more than the ways we currently have for installing solar capacity. Which might make sense if we had already exhausted our options for places we could build solar panels on the cheap (we haven’t).
And, not only would it be pricier to install the panels, they wouldn’t work as well. Solar installations that can move over the course of the day to follow the sun’s path are way, way more efficient than ones that simply lay flat. Not to mention the parts of our roads that are, you know, shaded.
Hard to See Public OR Private Investment in Solar Roadways
So, maybe the solar capacity isn’t as efficient as possible, sure. And it may be really expensive, yeah. But these roads are still superior in other ways and it’s still a way to install more solar capacity than we have now. Why wouldn’t we?
Because a project like this would never, ever get funded. Ever. Or, at least not until the technology is so advanced that a monkey could see the cost benefits to putting it in, and that’s probably not a serious possibility at any point before 2050.
We currently live in a country of crumbling bridges and roads that desperately need to be replaced but aren’t. If we can’t get the money to properly maintain the current, insanely low-tech highway system, where exactly is the money for this going to come from?
The Federal Government, for instance, currently spends over $50 billion a year taking care of our highway system. A number that MIGHT increase some if that begins to include, say, caring for a massive network of complicated electronics.
Not to mention the cost of actually building this system. The tab for removing the existing roads, installing solar panels, covering them in fancy glass, digging out large maintenance tunnels, and putting in the necessary electrical infrastructure is probably going to be in the trillions of dollar. Yes, trillions, with a “T.”1
And what about the private sector? Again, there's just too many other options. Why would Wal-Mart consider spending the money necessary to replace its parking lots with solar parking lots prior to investing in solar arrays for the roofs of its massive stores first? It's just hard to imagine a business where this would actually be a smart investment in the near or long term.
This is a Way to Fund This Couple's Hobby
At the end of the day, you may not care about any of this. Impractical or not, space-age solar roads might seem really cool to you and $5 isn’t breaking the bank. Hey, whatever floats your boat, it’s your money. But the way that this campaign is attempting to appeal to the general public with visions of a grand, national system of high-tech roads is, to put it bluntly, disingenuous at best and fraudulent at worst.
Rather than making the honest pitch that “hey, I have this really cool hobby that may or may not result in an actual piece of practical technology,” the Brusaws pull out all the stops in terms of a grand vision of the future and how your donation ties into that.
And it’s really hard to see how another $1 million given to these two actually gets anyone any closer to this being a reality. There’s no discussion of cost; there’s no battle plan for convincing local, state, and federal governments to invest in this sort of infrastructure; they seem intentionally vague about the people who are supposedly lining up to buy this; and it’s not 100 percent clear what this money would actually be spent on.
The Brusaws’ website claims “Our technology works. Now it's time to gear up for manufacturing.” But, as noted above, it’s extremely hard to see where they’re going to find actual customers who would rather spend vast sums of money on redoing their parking lots rather than putting cheaper, more-efficient solar arrays on their roofs.
Which, I’d have to assume, has something to do with why the Brusaws have been unable to secure any piece of the more-than $2 billion a year spent on solar research and development around the world (more than $1 billion a year in the United States). Probably because there’s too many more-practical, more-promising investments to be made to seriously consider this pipe dream.
If you’re really that interested in solar power, the environment, and trying to slow global warming (I know I am), there’s any number of ways you can invest your money that would do much more to actually reach that goal than this would. There’s already a strong domestic solar industry, for instance, producing real change and real technological innovation, not to mention actually putting that technology and innovation into motion.
Look, I realize that, among the Indiegogo crowd, the suggestion of buying stock or corporate bonds may come off as absurdly distasteful. But, really, how is that all that different except that it would accomplish more AND possibly make you money at the same time? Why give money to the Brusaws for their business to develop an impractical idea with no shot of a return instead of giving money to other businesses when those businesses are offering interest payments and/or partial ownership while also accomplishing more with the funds? Because of the cute video? I mean, that’s fine. Like I said earlier, it’s your money.
1Also worth noting that, with the rate that solar technology is improving, the panels you would spend trillions putting underground would probably be woefully inefficient in a matter of years. Do you spend another few trillion digging them back up and putting in new one at that point? Hmm.