What Tech Projects Can Learn From Solar Roadways

Last week solar power generated some headlines, as an unlikely-sounding Indiegogo project went viral. Solar Roadways asked for $1 million and at the time of writing, with 17 days till its extended closing date, looks pretty sure to clear $2 million – helped by a Tweet from George Takei, and a video called Solar FREAKING Roadways.

The green tech industry can learn a lot from this – even though the Solar Roadways team’s Big Idea is a far cry from the day-to-day business of efficient data centres.

Solar FREAKING Roadways?

Solar Roadways’ founders, Scott and Julie Brusaw, want to replace all the roads, driveways and parking lots in the US with toughened solar panels. They calculate this would harvest three times as much power as the US needs, and could be repeated in any other country.

That enables everyone to switch to electric transport, and pretty much solves the world’s energy needs. It also sorts out other transport issues, since the panels house LEDs for configurable traffic signage, and heating elements to prevent icing up.

It’s not that simple, of course. Back in 2010, Scott Brusaw estimated the cost of a Solar Roadways panel at $69.44 per square foot, putting the cost of the whole scheme at $60 trillion, or 3.5 times the US gross domestic product. These days, he’s not quoting any costs at all, just pointing out that mass production will bring the price down.

Engineers have noted barriers for the scheme, and it’s also been pointed out that this is effectively a private company, proposing a public works project, and marketing it like a charity (but that’s an endemic issue in crowdfunding).

When Green Tech meets politics

The story brings up a more public version of some issues that emerge from green tech work. Saving energy is an engineering project, but how it gets implemented tangles with politics. In data centres, that’s about the extent to which governments will support your work through tax breaks and the like, or constrain it by imposing building and energy standards.

The Solar Roadways people are trying to drive a political change through tech and the social media. Critics say what they produce will end up making fancy solar driveways and parking lots, but fail to get beyond that.

The funding of the project demonstrates idealism. It also suggests that people no longer have faith that politics will deliver, preferring to believe that tech will change the world.

In fact, progress will only come from both together. Politics is needed to fund and support viable projects, while tech dreamers have to provide the ideas.

In data centres, that means you have to pick the right tech and gain support for your ideas. You (probably) don’t have the option of funding your new cooling system through Indiegogo or Kickstarter, but you do have to win hearts and minds to make it happen.

A version of this story appeared on Green Data Center News.

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Peter Judge

Peter Judge has been involved with tech B2B publishing in the UK for many years, working at Ziff-Davis, ZDNet, IDG and Reed. His main interests are networking security, mobility and cloud

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