On Feb. 5, Scott Brusaw demonstrated a 12-foot by 12-foot solar road panel in a friend's garage in Sagle. A cameraman filmed the event, and officials with the U.S. Department of Transportation will likely visit the demonstration by the end of February.
This full-bearded North Idaho tinkerer wants to rip up the pavement and replace it with an intelligent road system complete with solar panels to generate electricity. It may sound like a wacky inventor's pipe dream, but the U.S. Department of Transportation gave Brusaw, an electrical engineer, a $100,000 contract last year to research solar roads. The money came through the DOT's Small Business Innovation Research Program. That initial money is meant for research, but Brusaw has taken it a step further.
"I thought, you know, I can build this," said Brusaw. He started Solar Roadways four years ago with his wife Julie. "If they're going to give me 100 grand, I'll take half of it and buy the parts I need and put it together."
So Brusaw spent the last six months in his home electronics lab building a small solar panel road prototype. By Feb. 12, he'll submit a final report detailing his project's feasibility to the USDOT.
The demonstration was the realization of a childhood fantasy for Brusaw who grew up playing with his electrical train set and little HO slot cars that race around an electric track. He always thought it would be brilliant if people would make roads that way and even as a kid drew up the concept.
Brusaw's life has revolved around electricity. After serving in the U.S. Marine Corps and working three years in oil fields, Brusaw got his degree in electrical engineering. For his master's thesis, he created a computer system for hospital patients so they could order flowers and send text messages through their TVs. He eventually became an independent contractor based in Sagle.
That's where he and his wife Julie--they've known each other since they were in pre-school--started hearing about climate change. Julie Brusaw suggested that he dust off his electric road idea and build it with solar panels. At first Brusaw thought it wasn't possible.
"You can't drive on a solar panel because you'd crush it. But then we started batting this idea back and forth and thought if we could make an engineered case to protect the solar cells, you could do anything you want on it," he said.
Now he envisions a world where his technology would create thousands of green jobs and move the country further away from dependency on fossil fuels.
Scott Gates, the renewable energy specialist for Idaho Power, sees promise in solar technology because it's available when demand for power is high.
"For this particular type of technology where it would have its highest [power] production in the summer and the afternoon, that's when we're desperate for it," Gates said.
Brusaw's solar roadway would work like this: You'd drive on a layer of high-strength translucent glass that has the same traction as asphalt. That glass protects a layer of electronics--solar collecting cells with LEDs and the ability to store the sun's energy for later use. Underneath, another layer distributes the power and data signals to homes and businesses connected to the solar roadway.
It's a smart system able to display LED messages on the road or even sense when something is blocking the way, like a deer, and send a message a few miles up the road to warn drivers of potential danger.
Brusaw calculates that by covering every square mile of asphalt in the continental United States with his solar roadways, "we could produce three times as much electricity than the U.S. needs." He estimates that greenhouse gas emissions from power generation would be cut in half by an intelligent roadway.
It would take 5 billion solar panels to cover every road, parking lot and driveway in the United States. At $10,000 for just one panel, the cost would be enormous. But Brusaw believes an intelligent roadway would pay for itself by generating electricity.
"We'd be shutting down coal-fired plants by generating electricity in a different way, and it would also allow electric cars to recharge wherever they wanted," Brusaw said.
Electric car owners could plug their vehicles in at rest stops along any solar highway or at a business that has an intelligent system in their parking lot. That's not all. Brusaw envisions driveways covered in solar road panels that would connect into the solar highway. Electricity would flow through that grid to your home, eliminating power lines.
The United States has the largest highway system in the world, and the cost to maintain this network continues to rise. Idaho Transportation Department spokesman Jeff Stratten called Brusaw's concept interesting.
"We are glad it is being developed in Idaho," he wrote in an e-mail. "And we look forward to seeing the results of the work."
After the demonstration, the USDOT will decide whether to give Brusaw an additional $750,000. That money would be used to build highway-size solar road panels that could be driven on and thoroughly tested.
Eventually, he'd like to install a solar roadway system at a Walmart Supercenter parking lot or better yet, pave the 45-mile section of road between Coeur d'Alene and Sandpoint with solar panels. Brusaw said that would be the ultimate test to find out if his intelligent roadway could handle a harsh North Idaho winter.