Solar concept paves way for energy production


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Scott Brusaw envisions a future where the roads are paved not in gold but with solar panels.

His idea, which seemed an unlikely dream just a few weeks ago, has received a huge boost from social media, especially from a slick, ultra-hip video that has been viewed more than 15 million times on YouTube.

Since mid-April, Mr. Brusaw has raised nearly $2 million on the crowdfunding website Indiegogo, helped by the seven-minute video called "Solar Freakin' Roadways" and a Twitter endorsement from George Takei, aka Sulu from the TV series "Star Trek."

Mr. Brusaw and his wife, Julie, intend to use the money to advance their vision of a future where virtually every paved surface -- from roads to sidewalks to parking lots to runways to basketball courts -- is retrofitted with hexagonal solar panels.

The panels would capture energy from the sun to drive microprocessors that monitor traffic and control LED lighting that forms changeable highway markings and illuminates the roads at night. Embedded heating elements would keep the surfaces free of snow and ice. The system would even warn drivers of obstructions such as fallen trees or animals on the road.

Mr. Brusaw, an electrical engineer from Sagle, Idaho, says full deployment of his technology would provide an abundant new energy source while reducing fossil fuel pollution, improving safety and revitalizing the economy with manufacturing and construction jobs aplenty.

"Talk about a hypodermic adrenalin shot to the heart of the manufacturing and infrastructure sector," the narrator on "Solar Freakin' Roadways" says.

As of late last week, Mr. Brusaw's vision had drawn nearly 45,000 donations on Indiegogo and nearly double the $1 million he had initially set out to raise.

"What a blessing," he said in a telephone interview last week. "It's so humbling to think about people all over the world getting behind this."

The success of the fundraising campaign also has brought out detractors who call the concept silly and impractical. One critic, who posted a 28-minute video seeking to debunk virtually every aspect of Mr. Brusaw's plan, derided his contributors as "people who are too gullible and decide to ignore simple physics and economics in favor of nice dreams of green energy."

"It looks amazing, it would be really incredible if it actually happened. However, not to be a huge buzzkill, but it should be noted that this idea is also completely impractical," wrote Joel Anderson, a senior editor at Equities.com, which advises investors.

"No matter how much you love the idea of solar roadways, I really don't think it's a bright idea to donate any money to these seemingly wonderful people," he wrote.

Critics say the panels won't stand up to the weight of traffic; the LED lights won't be bright enough in sunlight; melting of snow and ice would use more energy than the panels produce; and people would steal the panels, just as thieves strip copper from vacant homes and buildings. Most of all, they say, the plan would be crazy expensive, requiring an investment of trillions of dollars.

Mr. Brusaw and his Solar Roadways website deflect much of the criticism, claiming the tempered glass panels have been tested for traction, load-bearing and impact resistance and "passed with flying colors." A parking pad that the couple built at their home stayed snow- and ice-free through the winter. Police could easily trace stolen panels, whose microprocessors would continue to communicate with the rest of the solar panels.

Traffic signals already use LED lighting that is plenty bright during the daytime, Mr. Brusaw said.

"The people who make those kinds of statements don't know what they're talking about," he said.

Mr. Brusaw, who met his wife when he was 4 and she was 3, said the seed for his idea was planted by the electric slot-car racing set he played with as a boy. As he grew up, he began drawing plans for electric roads, an idea that shifted toward the sun as concerns about global warming and greenhouse gases grew.

He founded Solar Roadways in 2006 and received research grants from the U.S. Department of Transportation, the second of which, for $750,000, allowed him to build the 12-foot-by-36-foot parking pad outside the couple's home, using 108 solar panels.

Needing to raise money to start mass production of the panels, he turned to Indiegogo rather than bank financing or large investors, saying he wanted to keep full control of the project. The campaign began April 22, and initial results were discouraging.

A Facebook follower, Michael Naphan, a Canadian TV writer and actor from Toronto, offered to produce a video.

"When we saw the final version, we were just blown away," Mr. Brusaw said. "He captured just about everything in seven minutes."

Then Mr. Takei, whose social media followers number in the millions, wrote on Twitter: "I like the sound of that. Worth a look. Dare to dream, I say."

Now the Brusaws can barely keep up with requests from the media and others fascinated by the project.

"We work 18-hour days. It's just taken over our lives," Mr. Brusaw said.

He will use the money to set up office space and hire professional engineers. A revised and final prototype for the panels will be complete by the end of the year, he said.

The town of Sandpoint, Idaho, wants to use the panels at a park kiosk and on sidewalks, and on an Amtrak platform and airport tarmac, figuring the installations would increase tourism, Mr. Brusaw said.

The plan, he said, is for his company to do driveways, parking lots and bike paths to perfect the system before attempting a road installation on a residential street.

"We're not naive. We've got to have a little bit of a learning curve," he said.

"Our ultimate goal is to do the fast lane of a highway. I think we'll see that within five years."

Erin Waters-Trasatt, a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation spokeswoman, said, "Although we are not considering this at the moment, we are willing to broach the idea with the State Transportation Innovations Council, which reviews innovative technologies and techniques."


Jon Schmitz: jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868. Visit the PG's transportation blog, The Roundabout, at www.post-gazette.com/Roundabout. Twitter: @pgtraffic.

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