Investing In Solar Innovation

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By Jeff Siegel

The road into the digital age has been paved with innovation. Everyday items have been electrified with panels and displays for endless possibilities of interaction.

Automobile windscreens, household appliances, even walls and furniture are lighting up all around us, wired with sensors and displays that receive and transmit information.

It seems the only surface left to electrify on this road to an everything-digital future is the roadway itself. Some folks believe one day soon, your local road network could be carrying not only the flow of vehicle traffic, but torrential flows of digital data and electricity as well.

Of the more than 4 million miles of roadways in the U.S., some 2.65 million miles are paved  occupying nearly 12,000 square miles of land, or about the area of the entire state of Maryland.

Now imagine if you covered that area with panels that are something of a cross between solar cells and digital displays. What you would have is an electrified road that generates enormous amounts of electricity from the sun’s rays by day, provides perfectly lit road markings by night, and keeps streets snow- and ice-free even on the coldest of days.

Slippery When Wet?

The brainchild of electrical engineer Scott Brusaw and his wife, the Solar Roadways system uses glass panels in the shape of hexagons that link together to coat the surface of roads, parking lots, and driveways.

Some folks question the safety of such a system. After all, glass is fragile, and no one would want to drive over sheets of glass, especially when wet.

But these panels have been specially designed to withstand more than normal amounts of weight and wear on even the busiest of city roads, with no loss of traction.

Embedded under the top layer of tough glass are arrays of photovoltaic panels that convert the sun’s rays into electrons. The electricity generated by the road panels can be stored in batteries during the day for powering street lighting at night, as well as augmenting the electrical needs of homes and businesses lining the street.

As well, heat cells can be used to warm the panels’ surfaces to melt ice and snow, keeping the road surface clear in adverse winter weather.

They could even be used to carry digital signals, including phone, television, and Internet data. No more digging up the road to install new cable lines.

Even overhead power lines could be eliminated, as electric power from power stations would be transmitted into homes and businesses via the Solar Roadway network.

Sounds Fantastic!

A series of important markers in the development of the Solar Roadway have already been established, including recognition and awards from GE (NYSE: GE), Google (NASDAQ: GOOG), the World Technology Award, and the IEEE Ace Awards.

Brusaw has also attracted attention to his electric road through speaking engagements at TEDx, NASA, and Google-sponsored Solve for X.

Funding milestones include the awarding of a two grants from the U.S. Federal Highway Administration, as well as contributions from a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo. The funding has paved the way for a prototype installation.

All in all, this sounds fantastic. But I have to be honest: Based on all the amazing and wonderful technologies I’ve seen fall through the cracks or blow up in investors’ faces over the past two decades, I’m extremely skeptical that this thing will ever get off the ground.

Not only are you talking about working with a giant bureaucracy to transition miles and miles of roads  which alone would take at least a decade to cut through all the red tape  but if we can’t fund basic infrastructure needs, you really think the government’s going to be able to pony up for something like this? Especially considering that we’re talking about solar here the scapegoat for decades of flawed energy policies.

The truth is, we’ve been down this road too many times before. And as much as I love the idea of solar roadways, I wouldn’t get too excited about this one. I sure as hell wouldn’t invest in it, either. The fact that these folks crowdfunded through Indiegogo tells me there probably wasn’t much smart money interest to begin with.

Look, if you’re that hyped up about investing in the burgeoning solar space, stick with what you know works. Stick with companies that actually generate revenue. SunPower (NASDAQ: SPWR), SolarCity (NASDAQ: SCTY), even an alternative energy REIT like Hannon Armstrong (NYSE: HASI).

Point is, while immediately discrediting new technology does nothing to stoke the fires of innovation, throwing money at untested technologies and unrealistic goals hoping for a quick payoff will only leave you broke and angry.

And that’s no way to live.

Jeff Siegel is Editor of Energy and Capital, where this article was first published.


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