In May of this year I wrote an article about the Solar Roadways project on Indiegogo criticizing the project as being wildly impractical. This wound up being a somewhat controversial opinion as a number of people accused me of being opposed to any and all scientific progress because, obviously, opposition to one idea for specific reasons is the same thing as opposition to all ideas because I'm a monster who hates the future.
Well, a little fuel was thrown on the fire recently after the Dutch city of Krommenie installed its own solar roadway. Actually, a solar bike path, but same difference.
So, does that mean I need to apologize? Should I be eating crow because this idea clearly works? Actually, no. Because if you dig into the particulars of this project, it seems to indicate that all of the concerns I initially raised about the incredible cost and complete lack of efficiency that make roads (or paths) one of the least functional methods for installing solar capacity.
We Can Finally Ride Our Bikes on Solar Panels, A Dream Our People Have Had for Generations!
The SolaRoad bike path extends for about 70 meters and should generate enough power for three homes. This is something that’s immediately sparked a lot of excitement. The Netherlands, birthplace of such cycling greats as Jan Janssen and Joop Zoetemelk, is a cycling mad nation. With almost exactly one bicycle per person, the country has the single highest rate of bicycle ownership in the world.
This is why the Dutch have some 22,000 miles of dedicated bike paths, all of which could, hypothetically, be homes to the concrete modules developed by SolaRoad. Should the system be expanded to the entire country’s bikepaths alone, there’s reason to think it could generate somewhere in the ballpark of 20 million kwh annually for a densely populated country in search of new ways to increase the power it generates.
So what could be wrong with this? Everything. Were I a Dutch taxpayer, I would be utterly furious at what just happened. Here’s why…
Sure, It’s Wildly Expensive and Inefficient, but We Can Walk On It!
Let me be REALLY clear, I’m very much in favor of expanding the use of solar power pretty much everywhere. I’m invested in solar stocks (see disclosures below). Big fan of solar. And that’s precisely why I hate this idea as much as I do: it’s a terrible way to build solar power.
Two details about the SolaRoads project should really stand out: the cost and the efficiency of the panel.
Firstly, the cost for some 100 meters that should be installed by 2016 came to about $3.7 million. 100 meters. $3.7 million. To put that in a little context, I thought I would use that cost to look at how much the wild-eyed Solar Roadways project from the United States that dangled the idea of replacing all of the roads in the country with solar roads in order to convince people to give them money to try and make a driveway.
So, there are about 4 million km of paved roads in the United States and if we project the cost of $3.7 million per 100 meters over all of that, you get…hang on, little math here…ah yes, $148 trillion. You know, a little short of ten times the American GDP. And that, of course, is going simply by length as opposed to area, which will be what actually drives the cost. One can probably assume that the average paved road in America is at least double the width of the Dutch bike path. Either way, the math is pretty imprecise here, but it still indicates that everything about this project is so wildly extravagant so as to be fairly insulting to anyone actually paying for it.
That’s doubly true when you consider the fact that the panels installed in this project are going to operate at a level of efficiency 30% lower than standard solar panels. Why? Because laying flat and in the ground, the panels can’t be angled south, towards the sun, let alone arranged on an array that can change its angle over the course of the day to efficiently capture the sun as it moves across the sky.
So, basically, this is a really expensive way to install really inefficient solar capacity.
Once again, I’m struck by how people seem to need the perception of this “innovative” idea to support an idea that doesn’t really need any additional selling. Just install solar panels. Where? Well, I can’t help but notice that in photographs of the bike path that there appears to be an empty space RIGHT NEXT TO THE BIKE PATH.
Solar writer Travis Hoium of the Motley Fool observes that, based on the current cost structures for SolarCity (SCTY) , the same amount of solar capacity installed as traditional solar panels would cost a little over $50,000, or about 1.4% of the cost.
Of course, the solar roads fanatics are always quick to repeat (ad nauseum) that “economies of scale” will drastically reduce the costs in the long run, thinking that the phrase economies of scale is not unlike a magic wand that, with a flick of the wrist, solves all problems. Back in reality, though, the odds of future economies of scale closing the gap between the solar roads and the traditional solar panels that are over 70 times cheaper are pretty much non-existent. We’re talking about the need to shave 98.6% of the current cost off just to be AS expensive as solar panels. And this is, of course, assuming that similar economies of scale wouldn’t also be reducing the costs of solar panels at the same time.
But Traditional Solar Panels Don’t Have a Cool Video So They’re Old and Stupid!
In the end, I think there’s a pretty clear confirmation bias at play when one decides to declare that any opposition to an idea in the present is tantamount to standing in the path of innovation. When people insist that saying this is a dumb idea is like telling the Wright Brothers not to head to Kittyhawk in December of 1903, they seem to be forgetting that the late 19th century was awash with terrible, terrible ideas for flying machines. The fact that an idea is new does not make it innovative. It has to be both good AND new. Placing solar panels under roadways and bike paths is clearly new, but it’s also obviously not good.
When push comes to shove, for whatever reason, a certain segment of the population has become utterly obsessed with the idea that things would be so much better if only they could walk on the solar panels. And if you’re living in a society where every roof already has solar installations and space is at a premium, maybe, MAYBE, this could make sense decades from now when the costs have plummeted.
Until then, it’s a little astonishing to me just how pervasive this idea continues to be when we continue to not build solar arrays on the millions upon millions of empty rooftops across the United States and Europe. Oh well…