Elon Musk Demonstrates Why Solar Roadways Would be Really Silly

Joel Anderson  |

Image via OnInnovation/Flickr CC

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I was one of the early voices pointing out that it was a really interesting but painfully impractical idea. This was a tremendously unpopular sentiment, and a lot of people left comments calling me an idiot. I was roundly dismissed as being fundamentally anti-innovation because I didn’t think the idea of being able to drive on our solar panels was the greatest thing since sliced bread.

Perhaps the backlash was inevitable, but that doesn’t make it any less ridiculous. After all, pointing out the flaws of one new idea is not the same thing as being opposed to all new ideas. The Wright Brothers may have had their fair share of skeptics, but, so did these people. Citing previously successful ideas as evidence that your current idea is worthwhile is sort of like saying that the meal you’re currently cooking will be delicious because you’ve eaten good food before. Guess what? If you’re a lousy cook, the fact that the chipotle-smoked skirt steak from Bobby Flay’s first restaurant was amazing won’t save your tuna surprise.

Why am I dredging up all this ancient history? Well, because something happened last week that, I think, pretty clearly illustrates the point I’ve been trying to make all along. Elon Musk rolled out his new Tesla (TSLA) Powerwall battery and, in doing so, unintentionally (but clearly) demonstrated why solar roadways are such a silly idea.

And I think you’re going to have trouble making the case that Elon Musk is anti-innovation.

Roads? Where We’re Going, We Don’t Need (Solar) Roads

The key moment comes at 2:44 in the presentation.

Musk is talking about the surface area of solar panels that would be required to produce enough energy to power the United States. He then shows a map of the United States with a blue box over the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles to demonstrate that the necessary area is actually relatively small. His point was that ideas oriented around finding innovative new places to put solar capacity are trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.

Gonna repeat that in all caps: TRYING TO SOLVE A PROBLEM THAT DOESN’T EXIST.

The amount of solar we need to install is not so massive that there’s an issue with finding places to put it. And that one simple fact pretty much lays waste to the entire concept of solar roadways.

One Last Question…

Let’s say for a moment that we found solutions for all the issues that would come up in trying to install solar panels under roads. That would still leave one, very important question unanswered: Why? WHY put solar panels under roads? What practical reason could there be? Given that massive, hulking, metal vehicles drive at high speeds on roads, what makes that particular location one where you would consider installing solar panels?

No matter how much you love the concept of solar roadways, there is one basic fact that should make it clear that the entire exercise is pointless: this would be a more-expensive, less-efficient area to place solar panels.

No one is really arguing this point. Solar panels that are larger, don’t have to be protected from the weight of speeding cars, and are angled towards the path of the sun are a better, cheaper, more-efficient option for generating solar energy. Period.

The only real reason I can think of for using our roads – space that is by definition one of the least convenient areas for placing solar panels – is a lack of other viable spaces. But anyone who’s driven from Little Rock to Los Angeles on route 40 can probably tell you that there’s just a TON of unused land out there getting ridiculous amounts of sun. Not to mention, as Musk goes on to point out in his presentation, the unused roof space in this country is probably MORE than enough to fit all the solar panels we might need.

No cars on roofs, folks. At least not in my neighborhood.

So, let’s do the math here: if we know that solar panels not placed under a road are cheaper, easier to install, and better at capturing solar energy; and we know that there is way more available non-road space for installing those panels than we would need; what is the value of technology that allows us to put solar panels under our roads?

Zero. Okay, perhaps not QUITE zero for all of us – some rich eccentrics out there would probably love the idea of getting a solar driveway just for vanity’s sake. But the practical value to you, me, and the vast majority of our society remains naught.

Solar Energy, the P.T. Barnum Way

It’s come to my attention that the Brusaws have now taken advantage of some sort of new Indiegogo deal that allows them to continue raising money through that site indefinitely in a perpetual crowdfunding campaign. This PRIVATE COMPANY can continue raising capital by selling itself as a bold vision of the future to a wide variety of, sorry, well-meaning dopes.

Granted, there’s nothing illegal about this. They’re still offering “rewards,” so it’s really just like having a company gift shop with really insane margins. And hey, spend what you want on what you want. A fool and his money...

But I can’t help but find the way this all plays out as being a disappointing commentary on our society. This company, with the aid of a viral video, can create an army of defenders despite being built on a fundamentally impractical idea, an army willing to pump money into their company without any piece of potential financial returns, while plenty of solar concepts that are actually viable have to fight to get their day in the sun.

Solar energy IS a necessary piece of this nation’s future, but definitely not in this form. Save your money for actual solar investment. Heck, save it for one of Elon Musk’s new batteries. They’re probably a few years from being part of a truly integrated home solar system, but it’s still leaps and bounds more practical than the potential for a solar driveway.

Either way, your money will do a lot more good getting spent on a real product, or invested, than getting donated to a business that’s built on such a weak concept.

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