After seeing former Vice President Al Gore’s climate change documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” in 2006, Scott and Julie Brusaw wanted to do their part to help the planet. Yet they hesitated at the idea of getting solar panels.
“I pictured them on our roof and knew I wouldn’t like the look of them,” admits Julie.
Plus, the solar panels would have to be taken down anytime the roof needed to be repaired. And they’d be a pain to clean. Julie wasn’t about to climb onto the roof. She worried that Scott would fall and hurt himself if he did.
They also worried the panels would be hampered by weather troubles. The couple lives in Idaho. Every winter, wouldn’t the panels get buried under snow?
Glancing down their long driveway one day, Julie mused, “Couldn’t solar panels be on driveways and roads instead of roofs?”
“Scott laughed and said they’d be crushed, so I let the idea go,” she recalls.
But Scott couldn’t. As a kid, he’d loved playing with slot cars. Maybe the idea of electric roadways could work in real life?
A week later, the electrical engineer was thinking about how to design a protective case that could protect solar panels from the weight of cars and trucks.
“I come up with dreams, ideas, concepts and designs,” says Julie, a former counselor retired from private practice. “Scott makes them tangible and real.”
Neither of them had built a tech company from the ground up. People cautioned that their idea would never get off the ground, but Julie and Scott had a feeling they were onto something.
In 2009, their start-up company, Solar Roadways, won a contract from the U.S. Department of Transportation. A 12-foot-by-12-foot prototype was created. Next came a 108-panel parking lot on Julie and Scott’s property and a 30-panel pilot project — a pedestrian plaza — in Sandpoint, Idaho. (Another is slated for Baltimore’s Inner Harbor this spring and will be open to the public.) Civil engineering labs continue to test samples for traction, load stress and impact resistance.
The idea has come a lot farther than Julie’s initial brainstorm of solar panels on roads. “Our panels have solar cells for energy collection, heating elements to prevent snow and ice accumulation and LEDs to illuminate roads lines and provide graphics,” says Scott. They have the potential to charge in-transit electric vehicles, welcome energy from other renewable sources into the nation’s power grid and create an “intelligent road” that can actually steer, accelerate and brake autonomous vehicles.
“Imagine getting into your car and telling it to take you to the store,” says Julie. “You could take a nap while the road guides your vehicle to the store, finds a parking spot, and wakes you up.”
So far, Solar Roadways has interest from all 50 states and virtually every country in the world. Eventually, Julie and Scott hope to have manufacturing facilities throughout the globe as well.
They want to sell panels not only for roads and driveways, but for patios, bike paths, playgrounds, sidewalks, pool decks and parking lots.
The possibilities of the panels are only limited by the imagination: Flexible parking lot lines could shrink to fit motorcycles or widen to fit RVs. Handicapped spots could be created dynamically instead of dedicated by the use of paint. LED lights could illuminate lots for nighttime safety.
And imagine airport runways built with solar panels — Scott and Julie have. “We don’t know if actual runways are possible,” acknowledges Scott, “but we expect that by keeping surfaces snow and ice-free and eliminating most of the plowing needs for airports, Solar Roadways could greatly reduce flight delays due to snowy, icy conditions.”
Scott estimates there are nearly 33,000 miles of impervious surfaces in the U.S. Transform them into solar facades, and they could generate three times the electricity the nation needs. Greenhouses gases could be slashed by 75 percent.
“We honestly believe Solar Roadways is the most viable plan to help halt climate change before it’s too late,” says Julie. “We want to make this world a safer and greener place.”