Solar roads: What do they mean for procurement services?

Every creative business idea is likely to be challenged by the procurement process and logistics concerns. Although the concept of covering every roadway, parking lot and highway in the United States with solar panels is certainly interesting, whether or not such an endeavor is economically feasible is another matter.

It's evident that demand for silicon - the material used to construct photovoltaic panels - would rise immensely, which would put pressure on manufacturers to create the compound as quickly and efficiently as possible. Organizations charged with spearheading solar road projects would require workers with knowledge of PV technology and infrastructure, a need which could be filled with vendor resource management. 

Solar inception 

According to Fast Company, the idea of replacing all of the U.S.' asphalt- and concrete-based roadways with solar panels was conceptualized by Scott and Julie Brusaw, a couple from Idaho who formed Solar Roadways. The pair claimed that the initial hurdles involved vehicle traction and making sure that glass could withstand heavy trucks. However, the Brusaws addressed this issue by laminating several sheets of tempered glass together - the same process used to make the material bulletproof. The source noted that the duo's roadway can easily support 250,000-pound oil drilling equipment. 

The primary features of the construction include LED lights that can illuminate dividing lines and spell out warning messages, a textured surface that prevents automobiles from sliding, self-powered heaters that can melt ice and snow and, of course, the ability to power charging stations for electric vehicles and contribute immensely to the nation's grid. 

What happens when a panel breaks? The news source noted that the entire system is wired, meaning that utilities, highway departments and other authorities would be notified when and where a mishap occurs in real-time. The couple is hoping to raise $1 million on Indiegogo to hire more engineers and continue to refine their product. 

Hit the brakes 

There's no doubt that the Brusaws have developed a solid base for a project that could potentially spark a nationwide revolution. According to Brad Plumer, a contributor to Vox, there are about 30,000 square miles of roads, driveways, parking lots, bike paths and sidewalks in the contiguous U.S. If organizations succeeded in covering this pavement with solar panels possessing an 18.5 percent efficiency rate, the nation could create more than three times the amount of electricity it produces annually.

However, Plumer referenced a spend analysis conducted by the Brusaws, which concluded that it would cost $56 trillion to cover all of the roadways in the U.S. - nearly 20 times the federal government's budget. This estimate was assembled in 2010, prompting the couple to revisit their research and figure out whether or not the country would meet a significant return on investment. 

In addition, a couple of other questions remain unanswered. How will the roadway remain clean? What will such an endeavor cost authorities in maintenance and repair? Storage will also be a major hindrance to making such a project a reality. 

Slow and steady wins the race 

It's clear that a massive-scale reconstruction of the U.S. transportation infrastructure simply isn't feasible. In contrast, gradual, constructive investment in Solar Roadways appears to be the safer option. Plumer acknowledged that the Department of Transportation is requesting smaller demonstrations located in parking lots, for example. 

There's also the matter of making solar panels cheap to produce. In order to fabricate silicon more cheaply, manufacturers should consider the pros and cons of outsourcing to a company that will provide them with procurement services. They should also look into investing in new technology. One such producer, Argonne National Laboratory, created a solar panel design with new ceramic material that's thinner than current models, uses cheaper materials and can switch polarity, which improves efficiency. 

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  1. The Federal Highway Administration wouldn't have given the Brusaws two research grants if this idea wasn't workable.

    The calculations Plumer used assume the use of conventional silicon PV cells. Thin-film solar cells are much cheaper and use far less silicon, and the Brusaws are investigating their use in production versions of the Solar Road Panels.

    For more on this, visit the Solar Roadways Indiegogo site. In addition to two informative videos, there are links to both the FAQ and Numbers pages of the Solar Roadways website: