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The nefarious focus on innovation

Solar Roadways needs to be stopped

Solar Roadways is one of the most successful crowd funding campaigns on the Indiegogo platform ever. But don’t believe the hype – this idea is going nowhere, and no one is going anywhere on “solar roadways.” But the bad-mouthing of the good stuff we have takes things too far and cannot stand.

As one of the cofounders of PV Magazine in Germany back in 2008, I spoke out against a couple of article ideas. For instance, I convinced the editor-in-chief not to go with a piece on a solar production line in space by showing him what it costs to put a single kilogram into orbit; at the time, Americans were fixated on getting solar from outer space, and some had suggested that we should go ahead and make the panels up there as well.

I also thought Solyndra (another American idea) was weird (in fact, everyone in the office did), but we went with a cover story on that – after all, you have to sell magazines somehow. Outlandish nonsense has a way of making the front page. Heck, some publications are filled with nothing-but these days.

Another thing I was asked to look into but eventually refused to write about was using solar panels as pavement; the idea was garbage. This was back in 2009, when Solar Roadways had gotten its first grant from the US government to develop the technology.

Solar Roadways
 - <span class=Not only do the makers of Solar Roadways not know the first thing about solar or roadways, but they apparently also have never played basketball. Above, the surface on which we are apparently not only to drive and park our cars, but also dribble. My ankle is twisted already just thinking about it.">
Not only do the makers of Solar Roadways not know the first thing about solar or roadways, but they apparently also have never played basketball. Above, the surface on which we are apparently not only to drive and park our cars, but also dribble. My ankle is twisted already just thinking about it.
Solar Roadways

Now, the technology is back with a vengeance through crowdfunding. I’m not going to mince words here – the problem is not just that the technology is not going to happen, but that it denigrates what we already have, the stuff that actually works. Here are a few of my issues:

  • Only Americans would put solar under something. These folks don’t know how solar works. Shading is a major issue in photovoltaics. A single pole – an antenna, for instance – casting a shadow across an array can ruin its output. You see, the current is only as strong as the weakest cell. If one cell is not producing much current (such as when it is shaded), it reduces the entire output of the string. The last thing you want to do is put PV panels under cars. Put the cars under the panels, duh.
  • Roads serve a purpose. These folks don’t know how roads work, either. Roads serve several purposes, and the guy who did this video has saved me a lot of time by explaining almost everything. As he points out, there’s a reason why we don’t makes roads out of tiles. One issue he does not cover is noise; roads are also made to be quiet – and sometimes to be loud (when you want people driving slowly, for instance). Solar Roadways will always be loud. (Especially when your car goes screeching off the road in the rain.)
  • We already have the solar we need. Here’s the part that that is worth fighting against the most. Admittedly, the popular video for the idea was not made by the company, but by some fans. Still, it shows a solar roof and speaks of “lifeless, boring solar panels” and adds, “This isn’t about filling a field with solar panels, wasting land.” Great, so once again we have entrepreneurs telling the public and politicians not to start building what we have, but to wait for some future breakthrough.
  • Sheep under solar field array
     - <span class=To everyone who speaks of the low “energy density” of solar and thinks land with solar on it is “wasted,” take a closer look at those little dots between the panels on this field array in Riegel, Germany (click to enlarge). Those are sheep. This PV takes up no net space, but provides 15 times as much energy as the best energy crop you could plant on that land, and it does so without noise or emissions. If you are waiting for a breakthrough, wake up!">
    To everyone who speaks of the low “energy density” of solar and thinks land with solar on it is “wasted,” take a closer look at those little dots between the panels on this field array in Riegel, Germany (click to enlarge). Those are sheep. This PV takes up no net space, but provides 15 times as much energy as the best energy crop you could plant on that land, and it does so without noise or emissions. If you are waiting for a breakthrough, wake up!
    Craig Morris

    Let me be clear about this: the solar panels we have today are what we are going to have in 2050. They will cost less then, but they will be made of crystalline silicon. We will get other things alongside, such as organic PV, for niche applications, but the future has already started, and we don’t have to wait for something “cool” to come along.

    Incidentally, the same holds true for wind turbines. The horizontal-axis, three-blade machines we now have are the cheapest source of renewable electricity and will remain so. No, New York Times, we’re not going to have these dinky vertical-axis things on buildings everywhere. And no, we are not going to have wind funnels.

    As someone who has worked in the media for more than a decade, I understand why garbage gets treated like a breakthrough; innovation sells – at least clicks, if not products. Politicians also need to demonstrate that they have funded innovation, which is why R amp;D grants are popular. Solar Roadways will not be the last counterproductive distraction.

    By the way, did you notice that all of these “breakthrough technologies” listed above are from the US – and that the guy in the video critiquing Solar Roadways speaks with a British accent? And the guy who critiques wind funnels is Canadian? And in this report (in German), where I discovered the critique video, seven out of the first eight readers think the idea is garbage (the uninformed person thinks they might be cool).

    America, your insistence on breakthroughs is hurting us. Just stop. (Craig Morris)

    The maker of Solar Roadways did not answer a request for a cost estimate for this report. He doesn't have to – people have just thrown a few million dollars at him.