Crowdfunding solar panel roads is crazy ambitious. But maybe that's ok

By James Robinson , written on June 4, 2014

From The News Desk

Okay, now this one takes a moment to wrap your head around.

An Idaho-based company, Solar Roadways, has taken to Indiegogo to crowdfund for its hexagonal solar panels that it thinks can be used to replace roadways, walkways and parking lots across the country, laying out a new decentralized power grid and solving all of America’s energy problems. The solar panels will be covered by double-layered laminated glass, stronger apparently than concrete, can supposedly withstand 250,000 pound trucks, are studded and textured so cars don’t slip right off the road, will have LED panels to make for easily customizable road markings and can be heated slightly, to keep them forever ice free.

Six weeks into Solar Roadway’s campaign and it has pulled in $1.9 million. It might end up as Indiegogo's biggest ever.

It is a far out idea. So naturally, many people have poked their head above ground to point out that maybe this idea is just too far out there.

Glass isn’t that durable. The hexagonal studs that give the panels grip will eventually wear down. To retrofit America’s freeways would cost between $20 trillion and $56 trillion, critics say. It goes on. There’s no good way to transport out the energy it generates. The LED lighting is too pricey. The lighting and the heating systems burn too much energy, lowering the panel’s net output. Etc. Etc.

What’re we looking at here then? Scampaign II: This Time It’s Environmental?

Except, Solar Roadways cannot be so quickly painted into the fraud box, or the idiot box. Founder and CEO Scott Brusaw has been an electrical engineer for 25 years. In the last five years the company has received two Small Business Innovation Research grants from the government, for $100,000 and $750,000, the second of which was use to build a 108-panel prototype parking lot, which it will finish in July.

When I reach Brusaw -- who began the company with his wife, Julie -- at work in Idaho he says that they’re encouraged by the results. As we spoke, he says the new parking lot was powering its office. Of all the hypotheticals Solar Roadways’ had about its product going into making its prototypes, he says people told them that they’d be on to something great if they could get within 50 percent of those. He says they’re internal tests show them within two percent of what they’d initially figured.

Brusaw says he tried to engage with critics, but realized it was a losing fight. The parking lot they showed in the video wasn’t finished, so people started disputing that the project was real, so he put up a video of a tractor driving over the panels, but then people said that it would crack if something was dropped on it, so he put a video of that up, but new doubts came up as to how it would hold up in the event of an accident.

Which isn’t to say that there’s not an element of complete insanity at play here. The curious thing about Solar Roadways’ Indiegogo page is that the people supporting it aren’t the people who will be its eventual customers. No one gets a free road for their support. If people choose to make roads out of this stuff, the company will be dealing with federal and state governments, or rich people looking to gussy up their private roads and driveways.

Which would be dicey crowdfunding territory -- giving Solar Roadways money to make product with no buyer -- if Solar Roadways didn’t have customers lined up. Brusaw says that the city of Sandpoint, Idaho where the company is based has been especially enthusiastic, looking to install Solar Roadways in its Information Center, local Amtrak station, airport and on a couple of walkways.

Sandpoint, Idaho is a small tourist town one hour from the Canadian border and Brusaw thinks city planners are attracted to the novel appeal of something like Solar Roadways. “They think that people will fly here just to say they walked on this stuff,” he says.

The secondary quirk of all this is that Solar Roadways’ Indiegogo pitch to backers is that by contributing to its campaign you’re helping change the world. But this $1.9 million (or however much the campaign has raised by its closing date on June 20) will actually go to helping it ramp up production to help meet its current few orders and continue to grow.

The company for now has only a regional footprint. Backers are helping the company slowly expand its footprint in Idaho. Not cure global warming.

It is early for Solar Roadways. The two rounds of funding it got from the government allowed federal officials to “better understand its potential,” says Doug Hecox, a spokesperson for the Federal Highway Administration.

“We can’t speculate on research that isn’t complete,” Hecox says, when pushed to offer an endorsement on Solar Roadways’ Indiegogo campaign. Which tells a story, of sorts. The work isn’t finished. There are still things to test. Brusaw says that while it is his belief the glass roads will hold up to wear, he doesn’t yet have iron clad proof. The panels will soon be stress-tested for 300,000 miles of use at a Federal Highway Administration R&D facility.

Solar Roadways’ Indiegogo campaign is earnest and ambitious probably beyond what is reasonable. But the key differentiator between it and a Healbe, whose product fell outside the laws of science, is that it’s proposing something that is possible and has been done (how many crowdfunded technologies come in the door having had a prototype honed with the help of federal money?), but just on a far greater scale than might be practical, which depends on buy in from agencies that it can’t control.

Solar Roadways will have to change the world to fulfill their Indiegogo promises to the letter, but they do have a product and it is not crazy. Most of the technology they use was available a decade ago. The campaign walks a fine line between having actual potential and being insanely, impossibly, dangerously idealistic.

But then if you can’t dream on a crowdfunding platform, where can you dream?

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]