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Solar Panels That You Can Walk And Drive Across Debut In North Idaho

A startup company from North Idaho captivated donors and YouTube viewers worldwide a few years ago with its idea for turning roads and parking lots into solar farms. Now that far-out idea is available for public inspection for the first time.

Go to Sandpoint, Idaho, and you can walk or ride across heavy-duty solar panels in a downtown square. But there's still a lot of skepticism that roads and walkways will ever do double duty as power plants on any grand scale.

The inspiration for the Solar Roadways company flowed from a married couple’s movie night. The flick was Al Gore’s global warming documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. In the audience were Julie Brusaw, a counselor, and her husband Scott, an electrical engineer.

One other thing you need to know about Scott is that he never quite let go of an idea to scale up his childhood electric slot car track.

“After watching Al Gore’s movie, Julie turned to me one day and said, ‘Couldn’t you make your electric roads out of solar panels?’” Scott said. “At first I just kind of laughed, blew it off and said, ‘You can’t even step on those things, let alone drive on them.’ So she’s dropped it.”

But he didn’t.

“It stuck in my head. I started thinking about that and a week later I came back around,” Scott said. “I said, ‘If we could figure out a way to protect the solar cells that just might work.’”

It took 12 years of research, refinement, fundraising and prototyping to get to the first public installation in the company’s hometown of Sandpoint. A wildly successful crowdfunding campaign in 2014 on Indiegogo and federal and state grants backed the company's R&D.

Unveiling to fans and skeptics

The unveiling ceremony took place twice because the tempered glass panels were literally half-baked (in an industrial oven) and not ready for the first scheduled reveal.

Despite the audible groans from the gathered crowd when the mayor announced the initial delay, the people who came to Jeff Jones Town Square on Friday seemed forgiving.

By end of the weekend, 30 hexagonal solar tiles were embedded on a public plaza. Besides the potential to generate electricity, they are flashing colorful light patterns from little LED bulbs in the solar cells. In winter, the 150-square foot array can be set to warm the surface to clear snow and ice.

Julie said she’s glad to finally get the product in front of fans and skeptics.

“This means so much to us,” she said. “We’re devoting our lives to this. We’re exhausted. We’ve been working seven days per week trying to make it happen.”

The Brusaws have never ceased to evangelize about the opportunity to remake the road network into something intelligent, impervious to potholes and that generates clean energy.

“Our plan is to replace all asphalt and concrete,” said Scott optimistically on Friday. “We did a calculation early on that there is over 28,000 square miles of asphalt and concrete surfaces exposed to the sun” just in the United States.

For that to happen, Julie added “It’s very important to get the cost down.”

The bells and whistles

Another frequently mentioned selling point is that the computer-controlled LED lights embedded in the Solar Roadways panels could be programmed to display lane markers or directional information, or notify drivers of upcoming hazards. The surface of the solar tiles is textured to deter slipping or skidding.

Idaho's Department of Commerce and the Sandpoint Urban Renewal Agency together kicked in the money to support the Solar Roadways installation in the town square in downtown Sandpoint.

At a Friday press conference, Sandpoint Mayor Shelby Rognstad touted the evolution of his small town’s economy, which used to be based on natural resource extraction industries.

“What Solar Roadways demonstrates, what they kind of epitomize, is the new face of Sandpoint,” said Rognstad. “Particularly they characterize the innovation and entrepreneurship that Sandpoint is increasingly becoming known for.”

The owner of the Sandpoint West Athletic Club, Don Helander, was in the crowd when the unveiling had to be delayed. He said he’s given thought to resurfacing with the solar road panels.

“We talked about our parking lot or a place out in the back of the facility where we would generate power for our club as well as having kind of a light up dance floor and activity center -- that type of thing,” he said.

Questions and challenges

The first demo project shows the Solar Roadways company has a real product, but a lot of doubts remain. Reasons to tap the brakes include questions about durability, practicality, cost competitiveness and solar efficiency.

Engineering Services and Community Relations Manager Justin Holzgrove deals with solar contractors and customers at Mason County Public Utility District #3 in Western Washington. He applauded the Brusaws for “pushing the envelope,” but said it is "far-fetched" to believe the panels will become more than the occasional roadside attraction.

"If their goal is let's shoot for the moon and push the limits of science and be dreamers, then that's really exciting,” Holzgrove said. “But I don't think we're at a place where it can be considered a serious investment or technology practice unfortunately."

Holzgrove said mass-produced rooftop solar panels make far more sense.

"Probably a lot cheaper,” Holzgrove said. “There's no concern of cars driving on them and damage."

The Brusaws responded that they don’t see themselves competing with rooftops.

The public funding to embed panels on just one small section of the Sandpoint town square totaled nearly $59,000. Solar Roadways has its next two demonstration projects lined up. There’s another small installation in a public plaza in Baltimore. The project teed up after that is also not on an actual road. The solar panels will cover a section of sidewalk at a rest stop along historic Route 66 in Missouri.

Highways “will be the last application,” Scott said before explaining that additional durability and life cycle testing by university civil engineering labs is in the cards.

There's potential competition coming from Europe. Two startups from France and the Netherlands -- Wattway and SolaRoad, respectively -- have prototypes in testing. SolaRoad covered 70 meters of a bike path near Amsterdam with solar panels.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.