EDITORIAL: More than one sun

Bill Wilson / April 07, 2011

Sometimes the quality of my day rides on how many specks of light are floating above my lawn.

If I pull in and there are six solid-white bulbs, then the last eight hours have been salvaged. I installed solar landscape lighting during the summer months and enjoyed three months worth of a glowing accent—until winter. There are no true rays in grays. December was the worst month. Leading up to Christmas I would be lucky to see a flicker of one, while the other five sat cold. Without light, the landscape luminaries are really just black frames of nothing.

So I must warn you my enthusiasm about solar-paneled roadways is behind the clouds, but every once in a while curiosity peeks through a brief opening. Roads basking off the sun’s glory are nothing new. Solar Roadways received a grant from the U.S. DOT a few years ago, and in 2009 completed a prototype in a tight research shed in the underrated town of Boise, Idaho. The 12-ft x 12-ft light-catching panels would cost $6,900 apiece, and if Solar Roadways is correct it would take 5 billion units—or just over $34 trillion—to cover the entire U.S. Interstate Highway System. But here is where my brain perks up . . . if only for a second or two: Each one of these panels can generate 7.6 kilowatt-hours of power each day, and Solar Roadways predicts that a four-lane, 1-mile stretch of solar-juiced roads could supply enough power for 500 homes. Snowplowing would almost become obsolete because each panel would be heated, and apparently they are strong enough to handle the heaviest of loads.

Now designer Scott Brusaw is anxious to get his hands on an actual piece of highway for a real-time application. However, there is one line of Brusaw’s thinking that I am having trouble putting a finger on. He believes that in the not-so-distant future road building in its current form will simply be too expensive to absorb.

I’m not so sure about that. Chris Williams, a professor over at Iowa State University, is the mastermind behind bio-oil, which is produced when biomass is super-heated in an oxygen-free area. Williams’ creation has already seen the light of day, and does not depend on it for life. The material was placed on a bike trail in Des Moines, Iowa, early last fall. Bio-oil is well on its way to becoming a replacement binder in asphalt, which would free the asphalt industry from dependence on fossil fuels of Middle Eastern descent. There also is power in soybeans. The University of Missouri-Kansas City is showing that soybean oil can improve the surface durability of concrete (See “Tough beans,” January 2011, p 22).

Yes, the flashy lights of a new and extraordinary idea can put a tickle into anyone’s day, but the practicality of solar-paneled roads looks more like a dull, ineffective beacon. I could see a few lace the landscape in the next 50 years or so, and perhaps we could even charge a tax for the electricity, which could be used to build more solar pavement.

However, I would like the U.S. DOT to recognize bio-oil and soybeans as serious contributors to the future of road building. A few more grants directed toward this university research could make these alternatives mainstream in less than 10 years, which would give contractors a desperately needed break from rising material costs. It certainly would improve the landscape.

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