Glen Hiemstra has an article about what I think is a likely future development in the use of solar energy, which is solar roads that generate electricity. Combined with the ability to transfer electricity wirelessly to vehicles, I think this may ultimately replace our current system of inert roads and gas-guzzling cars.
With the caveat that I am hardly an expert on the physics of all this (and I’d certainly like to hear from those who are) and that there are some obvious technical hurdles to overcome, this all seems entirely plausible to me:
What is a road? A strip of asphalt, concrete, dirt, or cobblestone on which wheeled vehicles roll. Road materials have advanced since Roman days, but not all that much, really. It is still just a hard surface, designed to support the weight of vehicles and keep us out of the mud. Twenty four hours a day, roads, parking lots, and sidewalks just sit there, and in the day time they mostly just sit there collecting heat and light but not doing anything with it.
Imagine, as Solar Roadways has, that you could replace the concrete or asphalt with solar cells beneath a layer of glass. Operating at 15% efficiency the U.S. road system would provide more than four times our current electricity needs, or about as much electricity as the whole world uses. It’s a lot of potential power.
It turns out it is not that hard to take “off the shelf” material and build a layer of solar cells between sealed layers of glass, and construct a roadway surface of the resulting panels. The primary complication is manufacturing glass that is strong enough for an 18-wheeler to drive on, that is clear enough to allow sunlight in but opaque enough not to emit too much glare, with sufficient traction and durable enough to last for years. The glass design challenge is one that Solar Roadways is working on, among others, and one they plan to test with their first road panels installed in a parking lot in the spring of 2013.
Then combine that possibility with this one:
The second infrastructure re-invention company is Wave, which stands for Wireless Advanced Vehicle Electrification. Its goal is to enable electric buses to become more cost effective than diesel or natural gas buses, and without the need for being connected to overhead wires. In order to run continuously on rechargeable batteries, a bus has to carry a lot of them, since recharging happens only at the base station. This makes the bus inefficient, heavy, and costly.
However, the people at Wave knew that electricity can be transmitted wirelessly though magnetic induction. The question is how to build magnetic induction equipment into the infrastructure. Their simple solution is genius. Install a wave induction receiving unit on the bottom of the bus, and then at various bus stops install a magnetic induction power transfer system in the road. When the bus stops to pick up passengers, the magnetic induction unit wirelessly sends a charge to the batteries, and this frequent re-charging enables to bus to run all day, until it returns to base for a full re-charge overnight. Fewer batteries, less weight, more economical.
All that is needed at the bus stop is a way to connect the magnetic induction system to a power source. Solar Roadways might just have a built in solution to that! Wave notes on their website that technical hurdles remain to reach ultimate efficiencies but they are installing magnetic induction bus systems at Utah State University, for the Monterey Trolley in California, University of Utah, and in partnership with Advanced Energy Solution in Prague, Czech Republic.
If those technical problems can be overcome, and it seems to my relatively uneducated mind that they can be, it could spell the end of the use of oil for anything other than making products (like plastic) and lubrication. As the conversion of solar power to energy becomes more efficient and versatile, I think our energy future lies in covering as many things as we can — roads, buildings, etc — with solar cells in one form or another. It may seem farfetched, but 25 years ago the modern internet probably seemed even more revolutionary an idea.