A Pair of Odd Energy Stories

I am working on a story inspired by last week’s Wall Street Journal article:

U.S. Biofuel Boom Running on Empty

It is taking longer than anticipated, but hopefully I will have something up tonight or early tomorrow. Until then, I thought I would share a couple of odd energy stories this Sunday. The first, courtesy of Solar Roadways’ press page:


Funds intelligent roads and parking lots

SOLAR ROADWAYS, SAGLE, IDAHO (August 25, 2009)- Solar Roadways today announced that it has been awarded a DOT contract that will enable them to prototype the first ever Solar Road Panel.

The Solar Roadways will collect solar energy to power businesses and homes via structurally-engineered solar panels that are driven upon, to be placed in parking lots and roadways in lieu of petroleum-based asphalt surfaces.

The Solar Road Panels will contain embedded LEDs which “paint” the road lines from beneath to provide safer nighttime driving, as well as to give up to the minute instructions (via the road) to drivers (i.e. “detour ahead”). The road will be able to sense wildlife on the road and can warn drivers to “slow down”. There will also be embedded heating elements in the surface to prevent snow and ice buildup, providing for safer winter driving. This feature packed system will become an intelligent highway that will double as a secure, intelligent, decentralized, self-healing power grid which will enable a gradual weaning from fossil fuels.

Replacing asphalt roads and parking lots with Solar Roadway panels will be a major step toward halting climate change. Fully electric vehicles will be able to recharge along the roadway and in parking lots, finally making electric cars practical for long trips.

It is estimated that is will take roughly five billion (a stimulus package in itself) 12′ by 12′ Solar Road Panels to cover the asphalt surfaces in the U.S. alone, allowing us to produce three times more power than we’ve ever used as a nation – almost enough to power the entire world.

I like the idea of converting roads into energy producers, but it seems like a real long-shot. A number of questions immediately spring to mind, but their FAQ attempts to take many of them on. I call it to your attention not because I think it will work (I haven’t had time to study it), but simply because of the novelty of the idea.

The second story is about a highly integrated variation of the algal fuel concept in Arizona:

Farmer turns waste into electricity

How it works

• Farm waste (straw, wood chips, cattle manure) heated in “gasification” unit.

• Gasification produces hydrogen and carbon monoxide, and creates a charcoal-like fertilizer called “biochar.”

• Gases are burned to make electricity, producing carbon dioxide.

• Carbon dioxide is pumped into ponds to nourish algae.

• Small crustaceans called daphnia eat the algae.

• Daphnia are harvested, pressed and cooked to process oil.

• Oil is refined to biodiesel; daphnia waste can feed animals.

• The biochar, electricity, biodiesel and daphnia waste is sold.

I was asked to comment on the scheme, and did so near the end of the article – following comments from Professor Mark Edwards, whose book I reviewed here. As I said, it is pretty complicated and interconnected, which provides more technology risks. Water usage in the desert will also be high, unless they are using some kind of waste water.

On the other hand, I think algal fuel can only work as part of an integrated scheme that provides other products/benefits (unless of course there is a breakthrough in which algae can be made to excrete their oil without having to harvest them).

17 thoughts on “A Pair of Odd Energy Stories”

  1. Hi Robert,

    Excellent blog!

    I'd like tell you about agave as feedstock for bioproducts and biofuels production.

    One hectare of our ultra-high-density agave variety annually produces from three to five hundred tonnes of biomass -from year 3 on.

    Agave yields 3X more sugars than sugarcane in Brazil; 4X more cellulose than fast-growing eucalyptus and 5X mode dry-bone biomass than GMO poplar tree.

    Agave thrives on marginal land -even salty or acidic soils and steep hills- in semiarid and temperate climates; needs no watering -190mm of rain per year will sufice-, nor agrochemicals -agave absorbs Nitrogen from air and uses CO2 as if it were fertilizer-; is very easy to cultivate, its cost of production is very low -less than two dollars per tonne of biomass-, is very prolific -each individual agave can produce up to one million plantlets and pups- and tens of biofuels and bioproducts can be derived from it: paper, bioplastics, detergent, methanol, biocoal, ethanol, wax, phenols, biopolymers, inulin, healthy fructose syrup, DMT and pressed boards, composite materials, non-woven material, geotextiles, concrete additive…

    Agave plantations can be established in 2/3 of the Earth's inhabitable land.

    If you'd like to receive more info on agave and my Agave Project, I'd be glad to send it to you (please provide email), and get your comments.

    Best regards,


  2. Arturo, it sounds great; but could you elaborate on that 300 to 500 TONS of Biomass?

    Is that "Cumulative" for the life of the field? If so, how many years would that be?

    Can it be harvested by machine? What are the "downsides?"

  3. Hi Robert,

    One of the main technical feasibility challenge this solar roads idea faces is a material's science issue: can glass be made tough enough to take the pounding of trucks and cars in addition to exposure to the general elements (rapid temperature changes, heat, snow, rain, bridge vibrations)?

    Two recent interesting articles describing developments in glass technology are:

    As Unbreakable as … Glass? (NYTimes)

    The Nature of Glass Remains Anything but Clear (NYTimes)

    In terms of economic feasibility, the CEO of solar roads mentions that regular asphalt roads cost US$16 per square foot (from 3mins 40secs into the video on his site) for an asphalt road designed to last 7 years.

    He says his road panels will last 21 years and wil thus breakeven at $48 per square foot. This is before the benefit of the value of electricity generated.

    The cost of road construction varies enormously from region to region and from mile to mile – so putting a firm number per square foot (as the solar roads guy does) is difficult.

    Also, asphalt roads are designed to last much longer than 7 years and concrete even longer:

    "A recent PCA survey of DOT specifiers concludes that concrete pavement on average lasts 29.3 years before a major rehabilitation is required. This compares to 13.6 years for asphalt pavement."(source)

    Even if their panels are not suitable for heavily trucked highways – they may find uses in car parks, pavements, and other areas where only light vehicles travel.

    As always, I greatly enjoy reading your blog.

  4. I sometimes wonder if my fellow human being take leave of their sense when considering new technology.
    Please–solar roads? The pounding, the searing heat, the freezing ice? And roads have to stay open–closing roads or highways for frequent repairs to an embedded solar system would encourage riots, at least in my hometown of Los Angeles.
    I do think there may be a place for solar roofs on parking lots etc. Many structures get a "double bang" when a solar roof is added–the structure enjoys shading, reducing cooling costs, and the solar roof also generates electricity.
    Re farms and using wastes, I think it is all very clever, but requires a smart farm crew, ever alert for blights, pests, diseases, and proper procedures.
    It may be that small farms can avoid monocropping and do quite well, with a diligent onsite owner-manager. My experience with small businesses is that you get up in morning and work until you go to sleep at night, and farming would probably be worse.
    Okay, since we are talking whacky stories, how about this: Could cars be outfitted with a dish that allows it to accept microwaved energy? So, you could drive to work, and this dish (your roof) get beamed at stoplights etc.

  5. Build a road that is smarter than most Members of Congress? I'll vote for that!

    No doubt the developers are sincere. But are they as smart as their road? If this technology is viable, they should be partnering with road builders & unions, not pleading for people to ask those Members of Congress to take money from other people to give to them. (Remember, those Members of Congress are dumber than roads).

    If they really have solved the factor which kills most "renewables", i.e. intermittency, then why not market the electric storage devices now — the ones which keep the road going for the 20 hours a day it is not generating electricity. There is a huge potential market for safe, very large scale electric energy storage. Go for it!

  6. Solar Roadways reminds me of concept vehicles where they throw all sorts ideas or features into a prototype. You're lucky if you see even one of those features make it into the next production vehicle. Most of the features probably get put off for being more expensive than customers are willing to pay for. But eventually the technology progresses enough on some features to make it into luxury class cars, and after more years, some become standard equipment in ordinary cars.

  7. I found the FAQ on keeping the surface clean interesting. After all, my rooftop solar panels lose 20% of their efficiency over the course of a year or two from just dust settling out of the air. There are no vehicles to leave tire skid marks or to drop oil and other fluids on my PV. Rain or a blast from a garden hose is not enough to get the dust layer off even though my PV panels are tilted and let water run off. After washing with scrubber and squeegee, the efficiency goes back up.

    The FAQ mentions "self-cleaning glass". That sounds like something that would be useful on all PV panels, and yet I don't see that offered. How well do they really work? How much do they cost? I notice that Saint-Gobain sells self-cleaning glass and glass for PV, but not self-cleaning glass for PV. A brochure says the SGG self-cleaning glass doesn't eliminate the need for cleaning, it just reduces it.
    It also looks to me that the extra coating reduces the transmission of light by 2%. I suspect the reduced cleaning requirements doesn't make up for the loss of transmitted light for PV applications.

  8. OT but interesting:
    Sometimes I post here about the epic supplies of natural gas we have in the USA, thanks to shale gas. There is little dispute about this.
    The blowback usually comes when I say we can use CNG for fleet vehicles, and even cars. "Impossible" sings the chorus. "I would rather drive naked," say many.
    Well, here is a website: http://cngvehicles.net/
    This guy in Oklahoma is already selling CNG cars, and for under $10k. Evidently, you buy a used car that has been converted.
    This offers a fascinating insight into how large fractions of people could make the conversion from gasoline to CNG: They buy a good used car.
    I have bought used cars my whole life anyway (Jack Benny could take lessons from me).
    Happily, modern-era cars are made rather well, and can go 400k miles with good maintenance and repair. I bought a used car in 1990 (a 1986 Isuzu Trooper), and 19 years later I am still driving it. Runs great.
    I have no connection to this guy in Oklahoma. But if what he is doing can be duplicated, we may see the conversion over to CNG a lot more rapidly than imagined.
    As I posted here, as gasoline station in West LA recently added a CNG pump for $750k.
    At that price, we could put 1,300 pumps in nationally for $1 billion. What we spend every day in that worthless hellhole named Iraq.
    Obviously, $10 billion, and you have 13,000 CNG stations nationwide.
    About three times what we spent on the dubious clunkers program.
    Guys, the doomer argument is dead. The only argument is how to get Mr. Oklahoma to go nationwide.

  9. Waste Management, and Valero (that's two pretty good names) are combining with Terrabon for "waste to energy."

    Every time you turn around Valero is getting involved in another ethanol company. Do they know something we don't?

    Oh, forgot the Link

  10. Waste Management, and Valero (that's two pretty good names) are combining with Terrabon for "waste to energy."

    Terrabon grew out of the research I was involved with in graduate school. My thesis is all about the MixAlco process. Mark Holtzapple, who invented the process, was my Research Advisor.


  11. "Guys, the doomer argument is dead. The only argument is how to get Mr. Oklahoma to go nationwide."

    Benny, I admire your can-do spirit. And I agree wholeheartedly that there is no technical or resource problem preventing the whole human race from having a great standard of living. But you undermine your case by trivializing the challenges.

    I don't mean the logistical issues that have to be overcome — doubling the US supply of gas, for example, and rebuilding the pipeline network for another. Converting about 200 million vehicles for a third.

    Nothing insuperable there, from a doability standpoint. But absolutely impossible in a world in which a despicable woman-killer like Teddie Kennedy is lionized as a great man — even as he fought the Cape Wind project to his dying day.

    If we can clean out the political system (a big if, since Obama-Reid-Pelosi and their ilk will not go quietly) and if we can then re-industrialize the US (which means admitting that Al Gore has been spouting lies), then it will be will be nothing more than straightforward hard work to provide plentiful energy for a reborn civilization .

    But if we can't get rid of the Political Class, then we all face a future worse than the doomers fear.

  12. Looked at Scott's web site. Odd is a correct description.

    “No more nuclear power plants”

    “The roads in northern climates heat themselves, eliminating ice and snow buildup. Cities will no longer have the expense of snow removal and the problems caused by the chemicals (salt, magnesium chloride, etc.) used to maintain clear roads.”

    Yes, Scott is an engineer. An engineer with no experience in producing energy, environmental protection, or road construction yet our government gave him money.

    The money is to build a prototype. It will not work but do not blame DOT, they want ot make roads safer.

    Speaking of safety, Clee wrote;

    “After washing with scrubber and squeegee, the efficiency goes back up.”

    Are you following OSHA requirements for working aloft? Do me a favor Clee and calculate the increased number of kwh achieved by cleaning your panels. Multiply by $0.02. That is what it cost to safely make your electricity.

  13. Kit, I myself do not like to go up on the roof. I'm sure the person who washes my PV panels is following all OSHA requirements.

  14. How many kwh do you gain per cleaning? What do you pay the cleaning service? How much gasoline is used for the cleaning service to drive to your house?

    How long did you live in California before lost touch with the environment?

    One of the things I debated with my dad was the SF Bay area turning into LA. This beautiful place turned into a cesspool gradually. SF Bay area has turned into the Akron and Cleavland my dad left while those places have restored their air quality.

    If you are paying someone to clean your solar panels, it is time to rethink your priorities.

  15. In the late 1800s, a french intensive gardening method produced an AVERAGE of 48 ton per acre. The problem there is the large amount of labor (we've solved the one of nutrient depletion). I wonder just how well we could do with a waste>energy system suitable for small towns? The agave sounds interesting, more info requested. There is one project looking into electrified railroad with a PV roof over the tracks. Assuming they can bring down the PV cost – which is in progress . . .. I've read about the self-cleaning glass, now at the laboratory stage.

  16. "…they may find uses in car parks…"

    Correct me if I'm wrong here, but aren't car parks usually full of cars during the day when he Sun shines?

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