From a remote workshop in northern Idaho 100 miles from the Canadian border, Scott Brusaw, an electrical engineer and Marine Corps sergeant, is building a system to do just that. And he's gotten the attention of some influential folks, including at the Department of Transportation, which last year awarded Brusaw a $100,000 contract to build a prototype of a new kind of road paving.
"The states are all broke," Brusaw said in a recent interview. "So the DOT was looking for some kind of material that would pay for itself."
Brusaw says that if all the highways in the U.S. were covered in solar panels with just 15% efficiency, enough electricity would be produced to power the entire country three times over.
On Thursday, GE (GE) announced that Solar Roadways was the top community vote-getter in the company's $200 million Ecomagination challenge. Although the winners won't be formally announced until next month, Solar Roadways received the most votes among the community and was awarded a $50,000 prize.
"Throughout the 10-week Challenge, members of the general public have been able to review and comment on entries and vote in support of the idea they believe will have the most impact on the smart grid of the future," said a GE spokesperson. "Solar Roadways has been announced as the idea that received the most votes."
As a child, Brusaw was captivated as he played with electric toy cars that run along winding tracks. But it wasn't until decades later when he was standing in his garden with his wife, Julie, that the inspiration for Solar Roadways hit.
"We were talking about global warming, and Julie said to me, 'Can't you make your electric road out of solar panels?'" Brusaw recalled. A vision was born. The idea is to embed solar panels beneath a glass surface that is laid on top of asphalt.
As the electric car passes over the road, it receives a charge from the road itself. One method for the power transfer involves induction, in which a magnet under the car would draw power as it travels over the road. Additionally, Brusaw's prototype involves embedding LED lights into the road for navigation or safety signals.
Needless to say, the engineering challenges are non-trivial. For one thing, the glass surface must be strong enough to withstand the weight of an 18-wheeler -- or a vandal's sledgehammer. For another, the glass must be sealed to prevent moisture from seeping into the solar panel.
Today Parking Lots, Tomorrow the World
Brusaw is confident those challenges can be overcome -- his goal is to build a solar panel that can withstand abuse similar to what "black boxes" in aircraft must put up with. The Federal Highway Administration was so impressed by the prototype that it asked Brusaw to apply for a $750,000 grant to continue his work.
"I challenge you to find 100 miles of interstate in this country without a McDonald's," Brusaw said. In other words, in his vision, one could theoretically drive an electric car from New York to Florida, charging it up the entire way just by going to McDonald's drive-through restaurants.
"We could start drawing a new crowd -- the green crowd -- to McDonald's," Brusaw said.
Congratulations to Scott and Julie Brusaw for a vision that has captured the imagination of thousands of people, including this reporter!