Route 66 is getting solar panels

June 29, 2016

Depending on whom you ask, solar energy has either already reached a tipping point or it's very nearly there. The start-up known as Solar Roadways is laying the groundwork for the energy revolution along an iconic stretch of American road: Route 66.

We first reported on Solar Roadways back in 2009, when it was awarded a $100,000 contract from the Department of Transportation to develop LED lighting systems. These systems were meant to be embedded in roadways, alerting drivers to traffic jams, construction zones, and more.

In 2014, Solar Roadways launched a crowdsourcing campaign in the hopes of raising enough money to bring LEDs and solar panels to public roads. That campaign netted more than $2.2 million, more than twice its $1 million goal.

Over the past two years, Solar Roadways has taken those funds and put them to use. The company has refined its energy-generating solar panels as well as the glass pavers that protect the solar panels from traffic.

Now, Solar Roadways is gearing up for its first public gig. The state of Missouri is gathering funds to pay for the installation of Solar Roadways panels at the Historic Route 66 Welcome Center in Conway. It hopes to have the project complete before the end of the year. 

Once installed, the panels will not only provide LED lighting to direct motorists, they will also generate electricity. In fact, company founders Scott and Julie Brusaw say that using this kind of technology across the U.S. could generate over 13 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, far more than the country currently consumes.

Our take

The solar industry has come a long way in the past decade. Paired with wind, solar is poised to see exponential growth over the next 25 years, when the two sources are expected to begin outpacing coal for energy production. 

Solar Roadways isn't the only company exploring unusual deployment of solar panels. In 2014, for example, the Netherlands launched a similarly small-scale project along a bike path. So far, the results have exceeded expectations.

Solar Roadways seems to have addressed some of the bigger concerns about installing solar panels beneath roads--concerns like pooling water (the panels are insulated and independent). Now, the company will need to convince naysayers in city and state governments about the cost-effectiveness of the technology. If the price of solar panels keeps plunging, though, that task will become a bit easier.

You can see a video about Solar Roadways and other in-road solar panels, embedded above. For something a little less dry (but also less objective), you'll find Scott Brusaw's explanatory video here.

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