The solar panels that Idaho inventor Scott Brusaw has built aren't meant for rooftops. They are meant for roads, driveways, parking lots, bike trails and, eventually, highways.
Brusaw, an electrical engineer, says the hexagonal panels can withstand the wear and tear that comes from inclement weather and vehicles, big and small, to generate electricity.
"We need to rebuild our infrastructure," said Brusaw, the head of Solar Roadways, based in Sandpoint, Idaho, about 90 miles northeast of Spokane, Wash. His idea contains "something for everyone to like."
"Environmentalists like it," he said. "Climate change deniers like it because it creates jobs."
While the idea might sound outlandish to some, it has already garnered $850,000 in seed money from the federal government and raised more than $2 million on a crowdfunding website.
Solar Roadways is part of a larger movement that seeks to integrate renewable energy technology — including wind, geothermal and hydropower — seamlessly into society.
"They represent the type of creative innovation that addresses design and energy while showcasing the diversity of solar applications," said Tom Kimbis, a vice president of the Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group based in Washington, D.C.
Brusaw said that in addition to producing energy, the solar panels can melt away snow and ice, and they can even display warning messages or traffic lines with LED lights.
There are skeptics who wonder about the durability of the panels, which are covered by knobby, tempered glass.
Another problem would be how to store the electricity that could be generated, Evans said.
Brusaw has produced no estimates of how much the solar panels would cost, so the financial realities of his vision remain unknown.
To demonstrate the concept, the company has created a small parking lot at its headquarters, using 108 solar panels. Vehicles have been driven onto the space without damaging the panels, he said.
"It seems like something reasonable and something that is going to be very expensive," said Lamar Evans of the National Renewable Energy Association in Hattiesburg, Miss.
The U.S. Federal Highway Administration gave Brusaw $850,000 to develop Solar Roadways over the past few years and to build the prototype parking lot.
This year, he turned to the Indiegogo crowdfunding site to raise additional money and move to the next phase.