How Solar Panel Highways Are Driving the U.S. Into a Future of Clean Energy

June 14th 2017

Kyle Fitzpatrick

Sponsored by

At Ford, we’re committed to making people’s lives better by changing the way the world moves.

Ever wonder how many miles of roads there are in the United States? Well, there are a lot.

The United States, including Alaska and Hawaii, has 4.12 million miles of road. The highway system is only a fraction of this, with over 47,000 miles uniting the states. It’s a lot of road that could be rethought and innovated, serving a more profound purpose than being the landing strip for rubber wheels.

What if we could make these million of miles of roads into energy sources? It’s possible, thanks to solar power.

The idea of solar highways has been around for years and offers a unique solution in solving the problem of available space for panels while doubling the functionality of roads.

In 2014, solar panel highways went viral via a crowdfunding campaign by a company called Solar Roadways. The campaign raised over $2 million and promised to do radical things like drastically cutting greenhouse gases and melting snow on roads.

The only thing comparable to solar highways in America exists in Oregon, which installed the first patch of solar panels along a major highway in 2008. The project has seen great success but featured the power in parallel—not soaking in the sun's rays through the literal highway.

Solar highways may seem like the distant future but these futuristic roadways are already here.

After five years of research, the Netherlands debuted a solar bike path in 2014. The panels only covered 70 meters (about 76 yards) but generated enough energy in six months to power a single person household for a year.

The biggest, most literal manifestation of this can be found in a village in Normandy, France: in late 2016, the town opened the first literal solar road, with aims to use the captured energy to power street lighting for the village.

The problem with solar highways is that the technology is expensive—and delicate.

Eyes may be on these roads but they should also be on their problems stand in the way of implementing these game changing street systems.

The aforementioned solar highway in France cost $5.2 million to cover a little more than half a mile of a single highway lane. Compare this with the fact that it costs $2 to $3 million build a mile of two-lane, undivided road in rural areas and $3 to $5 million to do the same in urban areas and you see how expensive this prospect is.

Other concerns regarding solar highway include dirt and dust from cars which might cover road panels along with the increased cost of technical maintenance that asphalt roads would not need. The panels laying flush to the ground could be a problem too since solar panels do better when tilted.

Despite blocks, solar highways are coming to American roads.

The United States is investing in this technology as the viral company Solar Roadways has received two grants from the Department of Transportation to test their product further in addition to the $2 million earned in crowdfunding.

When it comes to literal road building, a patch of Route 66 in Missouri is set to become a solar highway and will be the first implementation of this on public roads in the United States. Public tests of the technology are also being conducted in Idaho and in Maryland.

Solar highways may be in the distant future but that future is technically already here. Now it’s a race to perfect the concept.

We might not see solar highways take over our roads for quite some time, when the technology is more sustainable in a financial and technical capacity.

Solar highways hold promise for clean energy to stand as a stark, innovative antithesis to polluting and depleting forms of energy, like coal—and a fresh reality in the face of myths like “clean coal.”