When "Pro-Science" Environmentalists Fall For Idiotic Technologies: Solar Roads Edition

I am mostly inured to being told I am "anti-science" for thinking manmade global warming will be less than catastrophic.  In debate situations (which are increasingly rare, since most colleges where I do most of my speaking no longer want a second side in climate discussions) I usually can demonstrate I know a hell of a lot more about the science than my opponent in the first 3 minutes or so.

But the whole "pro-science" pose of environmentalists is especially funny when they get really excited about some very stupid technology.  Environmentalists' support for corn ethanol is a good case in point.  Most of them have retreated on this, and the media has pretty much allowed them to pretend they were never really vociferous supporters of this technology that most now consider (and I considered from the beginning) to be environmentally damaging.

Here is the new, latest, greatest example.  From Think Progress, where else, but the story has been reprinted all over the hip environmental Left:

The World’s First Solar Road Is Producing More Energy Than Expected


In its first six months of existence, the world’s first solar road is performing even better than developers thought.

The road, which opened in the Netherlands in November of last year, has produced more than 3,000 kilowatt-hours of energy — enough to power a single small household for one year, according to Al-Jazeera America.

“If we translate this to an annual yield, we expect more than the 70kwh per square meter per year,” Sten de Wit, a spokesman for the project — dubbed SolaRoad — told Al Jazeera America. “We predicted [this] as an upper limit in the laboratory stage. We can therefore conclude that it was a successful first half year.”

De Wit said in a statement that he didn’t “expect a yield as high as this so quickly.”

The 230-foot stretch of road, which is embedded with solar cells that are protected by two layers of safety glass, is built for bike traffic, a use that reflects the road’s environmentally-friendly message and the cycling-heavy culture of the Netherlands.

In the US, we pay about 12 cents a KwH for electricity  (the Dutch probably pay more).  But at this rate, in 6 months, the solar sidewalk has generated... $360 of electricity.  Double that for a year, and we get $720 of electricity a year.

How much did the sidewalk cost?  The article doesn't say.  You will find this typical of wind and solar articles.  If they quantify the installation cost, they will not quantify the value of power produced.  If they quantify the power produced, they will never quantify the installation cost. This article says the installation cost was $3.5 million, though I suppose one should subtract from that the cost to build a similar length concrete bike path, but that can't be more than $100,000 for 230 feet.  They say they are getting 70kwh per year per square meter, which is $8.40 worth of electricity per square meter per year.  Since regular solar panels - without all the special glass overlays and installation in the ground and inverters and wiring - cost about $150-$200 per square meter, you can see this is a horrible investment.

Part of the reason this is a bad investment is that solar panels are simply not efficient enough and cheap enough to be cost effective -- I think they will be someday, but not now.   But this project has special problems:

  • The panels are actually in the ground with people driving over them.  Honestly, could one actually choose a worse spot for a solar panel?  This installation location, vs. say a roof, adds incredible cost to toughen the panels for wear.  Also, it increases their maintenance costs and likely reduces their life.
  • Even worse, the panels have to sit flat on the ground, which is not the most efficient place for them.  Panels are most efficient if tilted at an angle and (in the case of Holland) facing south.  Further, they are more efficient up in the air where they do not get shaded by trees or buildings.

This is just stupid, stupid, stupid.  Perhaps if solar becomes more efficient and we have run out of space on every roof in the world, one might possibly maybe (but probably not) consider this.  But despite the inherent inanity of this idea, look at all the articles on Solaroad -- Think Progress, the Huffington Post, Engadget, Tree Hugger, Extreme Tech, NPR, Sustainable Business -- they all have multiple, gushing, unrelentingly positive articles about this.  Look at all the positively fawning comments on Think Progress.  I can't find a single article on the web that is even slightly skeptical.

 Update:  A reader sends me this epic video takedown of this stupid idea.  He did this in advance of the article today.  He finds it to be complete BS, despite the fact that he overestimates electrical production by a factor of 2.

  • Seattle Steve

    The Dutch saw this scientific report, and just had to have one for themselves:


  • MB

    Really? This is "gushing [and], unrelentingly positive"? From your own treehugger link:

    "I don't want to rain on anyone's bicycle parade, but all of the complaints that we had with Scott Brusaw's solar roadway project apply here in spades. The Solaroad people...admit that because of the angle (lying almost flat), these solar panels will only generate 30% of a what conventional roof mounted panel would [produce]. They are also protected by heavy textured tempered glass, that probably costs a whole lot more than solar panels do these days."

    "not everyone thinks that [the finish and tilt] will do the job [of keeping the panels clean]"

    "On Renewables Magazine, Craig Morris is not so sure, and says "Please, just stop.""

    "I still find it hard to think of a worse place to put solar panels than in the road, except perhaps in my basement floor."

    "Dave the engineer doesn't think much of it either."

    That's not even getting into the comments....

  • Ever the skeptic

    I'm thinking that setting up vertical wind turbines (the cylindrical, multi-blade type) between lanes and on the shoulders can take advantage of the breezes created by passing vehicles. The electricity can be stored in huge arrays of lithium batteries which would be used to power traffic signals which would be placed every 0.1 mile and managed non-sequentially. Whadduyathink?

  • Earl Wertheimer

    To make these projects seem reasonable, the government just increases the cost of electricity generated by methods that are not considered 'green' enough. The loser is the consumer, who has to pay more for the inefficient generation of electricity.

  • NL7

    This is a popular idea because it's an ostentatious display of environmentalism and it purports to solve the conflict between solar panel usage and land usage. It's become clear from large desert arrays and roof installations that solar panels take up significant space before you get much energy.

    Sidewalk installation promises that we can have solar energy: 1) without a significant cost to open land, 2) without a need to erect new structures above ground level, 3) in tons of places around the world, because sidewalks are so prevalent, 4) in a way that constantly reminds everybody how important solar energy is, since everybody who sees sidewalks will know it, and 5) only with the significant involvement of government in a Marshall Plan-like effort to upgrade sidewalks.

    It hits a lot of valuable buttons - other than meeting a cost-benefit analysis.

  • George R

    " though I suppose one should subtract from that the cost to build a similar length concrete bike path, but that can't be more than $100,000 for 230 feet."

    You are obviously not familiar with the Connecticut Busway. It's a 9.4 mile road that is dedicated to buses. The total cost was $570 million, which works out to about $950 per inch. Yeah, it includes 31 buses, but what's that, $20 million of the total? But the Busway has some really cool features. It connects two economically depressed cities. It's going to cut down on traffic on I-84 into Hartford, and to accommodate the commuters, there are 45 parking spaces in the outermost lot (New Britain). Another great feature is that the bus stops 11 times in the 9.4 mile journey, which means that even if you are in stop-and-go traffic, you'll get there faster, particularly since you don't need to wait for the bus. You may realize that Connecticut gets snow sometimes. Well, this busway will create lots of extra jobs for snow removal. The Busway is next to a Railroad track for part, and other parts are between two concrete walls. So when it snows, the snow has to be put into dump trucks and taken somewhere else. Just think of all the jobs that will create.

    The busway might not be as expensive as the solaroad, but it's pretty close.

  • Onlooker from Troy

    It's just absurd. You don't have to be a structural engineer (or any kind of engineer) to understand that a road surface has to be one of the most hostile environments anywhere. By the time we might ever produce the kind of solar technology that could withstand it (realizing the limitations already set out like angle of incidence being too large, etc), the applications will be small enough and obsure enough to use in much better locations like roofs, south-facing building sides, etc.

    I can't imagine that it would ever make sense to design a solar tech robust enough to use on road surfaces.

  • Q46

    The question is why?

    We already have paid for generation and transmission infrastructure.

    We have a readily available, abundant, low cost energy source.

    We have a consistent, regular, easily variable, reliable means of generation.

    Why would we want to switch to an erratic, unreliable, intermittent, vastly expensive alternative?

    It is the equivalent of making sacrifice to appease the gods.

  • Q46

    Rain, snow, ice.

  • obloodyhell

    }}} I think they will be someday, but not now.

    FreakingFucking never, ever.

    The SOLAR CONSTANT -- the freaking MOST you could ever get under ANY circumstances, ever, ever, ever -- PERFECT weather, PERFECT conversion, PERFECT angle to the sun -- is roughly 1kw/sq-m.

    At that low a level, the amount of areal surface you'd have to cover would be enormous. Now divide by two (50% conversion would be a MASSIVE improvement), another 50% of THAT for avg 12h/day sunlight (actually more like 9 since that dusk and dawn thing saps quite a bit out of the sky), and then, just at a guess, 75% of THAT for some combination of transmission losses and being at a slant to the actual sun (i.e., cosine angle) -- and I think that 75% is being generous there.

    So right there, you're UNDER 20% -- so your areal surface to cover is now FIVE square meters for EVERY kW you're looking to generate.

    The only system that's actually worth spending ANY money developing is OTC -- which uses, essentially, the entire ocean surface as a collector and storage battery of the energies collected. And even THAT needs considerable engineering work on getting energy from low-potential energy differences.

  • obloodyhell

    Yeah, but even at that, it's still smarter than high speed rail for California....!!

  • obloodyhell

    And of course, in all this, they don't state -- even once -- the cost of a single one of these wonderful hexagons, much less the cost of the systems to fix and maintain them -- note even under the presumption of conbstructing millions and millions of them a year. Where are the actual estimates of their durability under low-volume roadway use, nor the cost to ... wait for it... control them. Right. Control them!!

    Because you'll note the "selling point" is their re-configurability.

    Where are all these commands coming from, and who is sending them? To each and every single one of the millions and millions of hexagons?

    Can you say, "Security nightmare"? I knew you could.

  • obloodyhell

    1) Notice how comments are closed on the linked youtube vid
    2) This also is over at the side of the video:

    Solar Roadways: Busted!

  • richard66

    The video uses 20 ct/kWh. Thats including taxes. The actual value produced is much lower, about 4.1 ct/kWh. That would cut the benefit side by a factor 5.

    Here is a link in Dutch that justifies this 4.1 ct.


    One of the reasons the price of electricity is dropping is that wen the sun is shining and the wind blowing, we get the stuff for free from germany and norway. Or they even pay us to take it.

    No amount of engineering ingenuity can produce this cheaper than that, no matter how hard you try.

  • ano333

    Huh? Warren wasn't saying the Solar road would be viable, he was saying solar panels in general. For many folks, they already are viable, I own a relatively small home (1300 sq ft), and I have a large enough yard (1/3 acre) for solar panels to easily self-generate every kwh I use.

  • FelineCannonball

    I'd classify it as art.