Is it sunrise for solar highways? [video]

Paving thousands of miles of asphalt with solar panels to generate electricity is an idea so promising that it has attracted funding from the U.S. government and venture capital. Now the idea will hit the road — on the iconic U.S. Route 66 in Missouri.

Solar panels of specially constructed tempered glass will be laid upon a section of Route 66 in Conway, Missouri, as part of that state’s Road to Tomorrow transportation initiative, which aims to prioritize innovation in infrastructure.

Stacks of thick glass panels inset with hexagonal glass pieces (Courtesy of Solar Roadways)
Solar Roadways’ specially constructed solar panels are built to withstand a beating. (Courtesy photo)

Some European countries are already trying out solar roads. The Netherlands built the SolaRoad solar bike path in 2014. France recently announced plans to install 1,000 kilometers of solar roads over the next five years to feed the power grid. And the German startup Solmove is developing efficient, electricity-producing solar pavers for pathways.

The U.S. energy startup Solar Roadways, founded by Idaho-based Scott and Julie Brusaw, got serious money for research in 2011 from grants and crowdfunding. Its Indiegogo campaign has raised more than $2 million, helped by a YouTube video, “Solar Freakin’ Roadways,” that went viral with more than 21 million views.

The tough, hexagonal panels Solar Roadways developed are designed to give vehicles traction while generating renewable energy from the sun, provide warmth to melt ice on wintry days and power lights to replace painted road markings. Solar roads can generate electricity for electric-vehicle recharging stations.

Couple standing on hexagonal roadway panels next to red building (Courtesy of Solar Roadways)
Solar Roadways co-founders Julie and Scott Brusaw stand on their solar driveway, installed in 2012. (Courtesy photo)

The company installed prototypes in driveways, parking lots and bike paths to test the product — the first was at the Brusaw’s Idaho home. Now the panels will debut on a patch of roadway at the Historic Route 66 Welcome Center at Conway. Route 66 has been superseded by modern superhighways since its heyday as one of the first U.S. transnational highways, but some states have restored and preserved the sections of the highway that still exist.

Tom Blair, who heads the Road to Tomorrow initiative, told the Kansas City Star that the panels will be in place “by the end of the year, maybe before the snow flies.”

If this pilot is a success, panels will be installed in more Missouri roadways, and there is hope that the roadways will eventually pay for themselves through the energy generated, Blair said.

Red, green and blue neon sign reading "66" (© AP Images)
U.S. Route 66 — once stretching from Illinois to California — will soon have a solar roadway. (© AP Images)

Challenges remain, however, including how to bring down the cost of the currently handmade panels. Another is how to keep the panels clean from road dirt, oil and other debris that lands on the roads, and would block solar reception.

But those problems may be solved as more minds focus on them, in the United States and elsewhere.

Calculations indicate that if all driving and walking surfaces in the U.S. were converted to Solar Roadway panels, they could produce over three times the electricity used in the United States,” according to the company.