One of America's most famous highways is about to become an awesome science experiment.
"Get your solar power kicks on Route 66."
There's a highway in America that's so famous, it has its own rock song which goes like this:
"Well if you ever plan to motor West, just take my way, that’s the highway, that’s the best…”
(That's the Chuck Berry version, obviously.)
Designated in 1926, Route 66 traversed almost 2,500 miles, starting in Chicago, Illinois, and ending in Santa Monica, California. It was the most direct path for many folks traveling west during the Dust Bowl in the 1930s.
As such, it was one of the first official highways in America.
After 90 years, ol' Route 66 is making history — again.
It's about to become the first public roadway to receive a solar panel makeover, thanks to Idaho start-up Solar Roadways.
The project is starting small but has plans to scale up quickly. To start, the solar panels will be applied to the walkway around the highway's welcome center in Conway, Missouri, but the plan is to eventually extend the paneling to the highway itself.
These solar roadways will be made up of hexagonal solar panels that conduct clean energy.
According to the start-up's "very conservative" calculations, if all the roads and walking surfaces in America were covered in these solar panels, they'd generate three times as much energy as we use. Not only would this make the U.S. much more environmentally friendly, it would drive energy costs way down.
But that's not all they're capable of.
The panels are intelligent — meaning they can be programed to act as roadway signs and can be changed as needed to alert drivers to animal crossings or downed trees, and they can heat up in the winter to prevent ice from forming. That means municipalities wouldn't have to spend tax dollars on things like street painting, signage, or snow removal from roadways.
Sounds pretty great, right?
Of course, no innovative technology is without potential drawbacks. Yes, installing and repairing smart solar roadways will be more expensive than regular asphalt roads. Yes, the Solar Roadway glass panels, while apparently rough like asphalt and able to withstand the weight of a truck, could easily be worn down over time and might need to be replaced often. And yes, there are concerns about the safety of driving on glass panels in various extreme weather conditions.
However, since these concerns were first raised back when Solar Roadways first made headlines in 2014, the company has worked hard to improve the panels.
Solar Roadways has found ways to cut installation costs and increase solar energy gain by 25% per panel, and it's running numerous tests on the sheerness of the panels and weather/moisture impact.
They also raised over $2,000,000 on Indiegogo (over twice their goal), partnering with the Missouri Department of Transportation to launch the inaugural project and install the panels alongside Route 66.
"I appreciate the Missouri Department of Transportation for taking a pro-active approach and embracing new technologies that will pave the way toward a brighter future,” Missouri Governor Jay Nixon said in a statement.
While pricey, over time, these solar roadways should eventually "pay for themselves," as the project's catchy video suggests, by churning out a significant amount of energy just for being on the ground.
Once these solar panels are installed on public roadways and walkways, it will become clear just how quickly taxpayers can expect a return on their investment. Sure, it's a bit of a gamble, but aren't all technological innovations at first?
If these solar panels work as well as they promise to, they could be a real game-changer for energy consumption — making energy cheaper, more adaptable, and much, much cleaner.
As Chuck Berry sings in "Route 66": "Would you get hip to this kindly tip. Yes and go take that California trip. Get your kick on Route 66."
And there's no better way to get your kicks than by supporting solar energy initiatives on one of America's oldest and most notorious highways.