In a recent YouTube video, a man going by the handle “Thunderf00t” produced the following scathing criticism of Solar Roadways and their record-smashing funding campaign on Indiegogo.
While I personally do not believe that solar roads are the most effective option for power generation TODAY, I do not think that the author of this video gives the technology a fair assessment in regards to its potential in the near future. In addition, he is scornful, condescending, and dismissive. Therefore, it is with some personal satisfaction that I dissect his own arguments:
(1) We begin at 0:13 — “Solar Freakin’ Roadways, what a ‘great’ idea–replace ALL the roadways in America with Smart Technology…”
Now, I realize that Thunderf00t is mocking the “Solar Freaking Roadways” promo video which makes the same statement, but his video is supposed to be a rational breakdown of the technology while the promo is intended to be humorous and hyperbolic. The technology does not have to replace ALL roadways, parking lots, bike paths, etc… in order to have real value.
(2) Next, after about a minute of politely lambasting people for putting their money into this venture, he goes on to say that roads must “…durably provide traction for heavy, rubber-wheeled vehicles in all weathers…”, that achieving this goal is “a very demanding requirement, and that the cost of maintenance is “bloody expensive”–all of which are TRUE–but none of which make solar roads a poor investment.
(3) He then derisively refers to solar roadway tiles as, “expensive, high-tech, glass ‘BRICKS’ (see 1:42). To which I could point out that he has already established that our current roadways are expensive, low-tech, tar slabs. Again, the materials used and expense do not disqualify the technology in themselves–only if the expense cannot be justified by the benefits gained relative to existing technology.
(4) At 1:50 he begins what appears to be a well-reasoned logical argument about the safety of the technology. However, it quickly devolves into a straw-man argument about the traction qualities of wet glass. He ignores the fact that this is specially engineered glass that has been textured to maintain traction when wet.
Recent research at MIT has shown that glass surfaces can be textured to make them “super-hydro-phobic“–meaning it will not become slick when wet. Therefore we know that this is possible.
In addition, he shows just how easy cars slide on existing roadways, and makes absolutely no attempt to justify his claim that driving on a glass roadway would be “suicidal” (see 2:15). He just expects us to take his word on faith that this is the case and to ignore the fact that they have run tests to the contrary (see 2:42).
(5) Next Thunderf00t goes on to question the safety of the road over time due to wear. He states that glass is a “pretty soft material” (3:22) and uses the example of sea glass. This is as ridiculous as showing a piece of coal and stating that carbon cannot possibly be used as a structural material because it is too soft. Glass can be made tougher, stronger, and more durable than steel by changing its composition and structure.
(6) He goes on to deride the “Tractor Test” used in the promo video (see 3:50)–but he ignores the fact that the US Department Of Highway Safety conducted their own tests and found the material to be satisfactory. He challenges how the material will hold up under years of use, but provides no evidence to support his claim–other than the faulty sea-glass example–and fails to recognize that even our current roads need to be replaced equally as often.
(7) Thunderf00t next challenges the notion of using tiles for the roadway rather than a single continuous slab (see 4:00). He shows a cracked sidewalk made of concrete slabs to illustrate this point. Unfortunately, I have worked concrete and can tell you that there are a dozen or so reasons why even a solid concrete walkway can break.
Whether or not the tiles break is determined by the strength of the tile–which we have already established can be greater than steel. In addition, the spaces between the tiles can allow water to drain more quickly from the surface–making it safer to drive on. However, it also means that the road-bed will need to be made of a material other than gravel to avoid being washed out in heavy rain.
(8) Next Thunderf00t challenges the idea of the panels being made of recycled glass. He points out that our current roads are made from cast-off materials from the oil industry, meaning they are already “recycled” (4:50). However, he failed to mention that this material–asphalt–leeches harmful chemicals into the environment. Also, did not acknowledge that the demand for asphalt has been steadily increasing–along with the price–in spite of recycling.
Then there is his statement, “You cannot make clear glass by melting ground up colored glass.” (5:13) This is like saying you cannot make a car by snapping it together…of course not its more complicated than that! But YES you can make clear glass by recycling.
(9) “…that’s why it (asphalt) is so cheap, and now you are going to replace it with these UBER EXPENSIVE glass tiles…” (6:00). Wait a minute…I thought Thunderf00t said earlier that our current roadways were expensive? And now they are suddenly cheap? Also, he never establishes just how much either technology costs.
He makes a stab at the glass cost by looking up the price of a glass sheet online–but he never gives the name of the website, or the specific glass product. In addition he fails to recognize that the glass for solar roadways will not be purchased retail, but manufactured on a large scale from recycled materials.
He then continues his earlier strawman argument of needing to cover the entire US Highway System all at once for it to be beneficial. The truth is that Solar Roadways can be implemented gradually along side a wide range of other technologies–such as residential solar, wind, nuclear, etc…
As for electronics (7:00) and solar cells (7:12), new materials and processes are already being developed for portable devices that will allow them to be printed on a roll-to-roll system–like newspaper. NOTE: The images from the video are for a PROTOTYPE device-not the final product.
Also, the cabling tunnels serve to upgrade existing infrastructure that is aging and needs to be replaced anyway. Also, moving the cables underground protects them from the elements, increases safety, and reduces maintenance cost. They will also cost less to build because they are being built at the same time as the roadway rather than as an afterthought.
(10) From there on he continues to hammer on the idea of replacing the ENTIRE roadway system and producing ALL of our power using Solar Roadways ALL at once. Again this is a ridiculous notion. Other technologies are being developed that will complement solar roadways–such as residential solar and wind. In addition, many of our existing power plants still have plenty of life in them and will continue supplying power for decades to come.
Thunderf00t also assumes that the FEDERAL government will be the one footing the bill–when in reality it is the States that are primarily responsible for building and maintaining the roadways.
(11) “…Of course there is the critical problem with energy transport…” (7:56) Wait a minute, didn’t he just say that the underground channels carrying the power will be too expensive to build? When we build these channels we will likely move existing lines underground, or replace them with new, cheap graphene lines. Doing this will also eliminate the need for long-distance high-voltage lines.
With the rise of residential solar, we are rapidly moving away from the centralized power model toward a distributed system where power is generated and stored locally. This means greater efficiency and fewer transmission losses. It also means reduced maintenance costs because they do not need specialists to fly out into the middle of nowhere to replace lines and transformers when they become damaged.
(12) “Do you know the size of the infrastructure you are proposing to build?” (10:00). You have already shown the infrastructure that is already been built. This is no different.
(13) “All the road technicians would now need to be electricians as well.” (10:13). No, but you would need both for the system to work.
(14) Thunderf00t goes on to challenge the use of LED’s–claiming that they would not be visible in direct sunlight (12:20), and that our current system of road markings is more cost-effective (10:45). However, he ignores the fact that although LED’s were used in the prototypes, other technologies–such as electronic ink (E-Ink)–could be employed in the final design.
(15) He does talk about using “liquid crystal” technology, but only to crack that it would prevent the solar cells from working (13:13). He obviously did not read up on the matter or he would have realized that transparent solar cells have already been developed and that Apple already has plans to integrate them into smartphones!
(16) Again he revisits the idea that ALL solar roadways would have to have programmable markings (14:00)–it is an OPTION not a necessity.
(17) “As for creating jobs, YEAH…but so would creating a bridge to nowhere…” (16:00). Again, this is a strawman argument. We are talking about replacing EXISTING roads and infrastructure that people already use–infrastructure that is in bad need of repair.
(18) Thunderf00t has been pretty unfair up until this point, but at 16:45 he just turns NASTY–saying that using these “high-tech bricks to melt snow” is “BULLSHIT”. Now I agree that you cannot use the energy collected by the panels to melt the snow–because the panel cannot generate any power when covered with snow.
I also realize that the guy in the “Solar FREAKIN’ Roadways” promo video says that this is what happens. However, the video does not clam to be a professional analysis –it was made by some kid who wanted to tell the world about an exciting new technology.
However, having lived in Iowa and grown up in Pennsylvania, I can tell you that putting elements such as these in the roadway would save those states millions of dollars each year. Snowplows do much more than just push snow to the side of the road–they do serious damage to the surface that needs to be repaired every spring. Plus salt and cinders damage vehicles and pollute the environment. Melting the snow AS IT FALLS is a much better option.
While they cannot justify the cost to just heat the road, the combined savings from consolidating their data, energy, water management, and transportation infrastructure–along with the power it generates (during summer) MIGHT make it worthwhile.
(19) Then at 8:15 ThunderF00t makes the classic mistake of associating energy ABSORPTION with with energy EFFICIENCY. Yes, traditional roadways absorb nearly all sunlight, but they convert it all into heat–heat we cannot use to do anything useful. Heat that is wasted. Solar cells absorb less energy, but they convert it into ELECTRICITY, which we can use. That makes it useful.
(20) He goes on to estimate the cost to heat a roadway 370km long by 15 m wide at 25,000 Megawatt-Hours or $2 Million dollars a year. However, he ignores the fact that even at only 10% efficiency, that same roadway would be the equivalent of a 500 Mega-watt generator. Even if the area only received one hour of direct sunlight a day, it would still produce seven times the amount of energy it uses to melt the snow in the winter. That is a net gain of $12 Million dollars a year!
(21) “…they don’t have a clue about thermodynamics, energy transport, or road construction.” (20:00). — And Thunderf00t does not seem to know anything about economies of scale, convergent development, or distributed systems engineering. And at times he seems to be ignorant of basic cost-benefit analysis.
(22) “Roads are dirty…” (21:30) This is probably one of his better arguments. However, scientists have developed self-cleaning surfaces, and this technology might be applied to Solar Roadways.
(23) “…Their calculations assume that the solar panels under the road are going to be as efficient as a top-range solar plant” — NO. This is patently false. Their calculations are based on an efficiency of 15%. The very best solar panels perform at over 40% efficiency, and the average commercial cell performs at 20-22% efficiency. And with the advent of new thermal cells, efficiencies will continue to improve.
(24) Twenty-Two minutes in he finally makes a good solid argument against Solar Roadways, namely that it might be cheaper to build solar awnings OVER the roads and parking lots. However, these costs would have to be calculated and weighed against the cost-savings achieved by simultaneously upgrading the power grid and data-lines with the roadway.
(25) Then he goes right back to insulting the intelligence of those investing in the Solar Roadway technology.
Look, I do not believe that Solar Roadways are the most efficient way to provide power for the nation at large. I am inclined to agree with Thunderf00t that we are better off putting solar panels along the SIDE of the road for that purpose–which could have a variety of side-benefits as well. However, there is no need to make fallacious arguments or be a JERK about it.