solar powered roadways by scott brusaw come to life with LED's

Solar Roadways wants $1 million to turn the US’ roads into an energy farm
by Daniel Cooper  /  May 9TH 2014

What  if we turned the nation’s highways into solar farms that we could drive along? Scott and Julie Brusaw have been working on that idea, and after a decade of partially-successful flirting with the US Government, they’re taking to Indiegogo to ask us to fund the next phase of their solar roadway. Each interlocking hexagonal segment is covered with toughened and textured glass that’s capable of withstanding 250,000 pounds. Beneath that, you’ve got a solar panel, a series of LED lights and a heating element that’ll keep the ice and snow off the hardware in winter. The lights are used to replace conventional traffic lights, offering constantly updating safety warnings and guide lines that can adapt to traffic conditions on the fly.

The system would require a trench running down one side, which would hold the power cables, but could also be used as the backbone for a potential new high-speed data network. As each panel would also be connected, it’d instantly report a fault back to a maintenance engineer, and also track its location, should someone decide to steal one for their own nefarious uses. Naturally, a nationwide, decentralized power grid could potentially guarantee energy independence and provide near-limitless power for our EVs and homes. That’s why the couple is asking for a whopping $1 million required to hire the materials scientists, civil and structural engineers necessary to turn the panels from neat idea to workable project. There are plenty of pitfalls, and we’re wondering if heating the ground to keep the roadway clear wouldn’t in itself cause more climate change, but hopefully that’s another issue that your cash could fix.

smart streets and solar roadways produces energy for the power-grid

Solar Roads Could Power The Entire Country
by Adele Peters   /  May 9, 2014

There are nearly 18,000 square miles of roads in the U.S., an area that’s bigger than the entire states of New Hampshire and Massachusetts combined. By some estimates, there are also as many as 2 billion parking spaces. Since most of that pavement is soaking up sun all day long, a couple of entrepreneurs had an idea: Why not put it to use generating solar power? The Solar Roadways project, now crowdfunding on Indiegogo, hopes to re-pave the country in custom, glass-covered solar panels that are strong enough to drive on while generating enough power to light the road, melt ice and snow, and send extra energy to cities. Eventually, if every paved surface was covered in the product, the panels would produce more power than the nation uses.

The project began eight years ago, when founders Scott and Julie Brusaw decided to take a chance on developing an idea that no one thought would work. “Driving on glass had never been done,” says Scott Brusaw. “We had a few big hurdles in the beginning. How do you put a traction surface on glass so the first time it rains everybody doesn’t slide off the road? How do you make glass tough enough to withstand the weight of 18-wheelers? What happens if someone’s walking out of Home Depot and drops an eight-pound sledgehammer?”

Glass, it turns out, is stronger than you might think. “You first mention glass, people think of your kitchen window,” Brusaw says. “But think of bulletproof glass or bomb resistant glass. You can make it any way you want. Basically bulletproof glass is several sheets of tempered glass laminated together. That’s what we have, only our glass is a half inch thick, and tempered, and laminated.” It’s strong enough to easily withstand cars, fully loaded trucks, and even 250,000-pound oil drilling equipment. The textured surface means it isn’t slippery, and since it can self-power small heaters inside to melt ice in winter, it’s supposedly safer than an ordinary road. It also powers small LED lights inside that can light up dividing lines and spell out warning messages–if motion sensors detect a deer crossing the road, the lights can automatically tell drivers to slow down.

At parking lots or rest stops along highways, the panels could power a continuous network of charging stations for electric cars. Eventually, the designers believe it may be possible to charge the cars directly through the road as they drive. In the future, driverless cars could also use the panels to continuously report their location. Since the whole road is wired, it’s also easy to maintain: If one panel stops working, all of the other panels around it call a local repair shop with the exact location. “A guy can come out and repair it in five minutes,” Brusaw says. “Compare that to pothole repair.” Using the $1 million they hope to raise on Indiegogo, the company plans to hire more engineers and continue refining the current product, testing it first on parking lots and smaller roads before moving on to highways across the entire country. Hunting down the funding to cover the U.S. (or even a significant portion) in solar roadways, however, will be an insanely big challenge.

solar powered roadways by scott brusaw come to life with LED's
parking lot solar cells, LED’s, heating elements, and the textured glass surface

Solar Roadways installs energy harvesting parking lot
by  / April 24, 2014

About 8 years ago, an electrical engineer and his counselor wife started throwing around an idea to replace asphalt on highways and byways throughout the US with electricity-producing solar panels that were tough enough to be driven upon. The idea blossomed into a project, where the panels featured built-in LEDs that could “paint the road” with markings and warnings, and could be heated to prevent snow and ice build up. The US Federal Highway Administration paid for the couple to produce a working prototype, which they did, and then again to expand the concept into an operational parking lot setup. As the latter contract comes to an end, the Solar Roadways project has released photos of the (almost) completed installation at its Idaho electronics lab. Now the team is dipping into crowd-funding waters with a campaign to raise funds for the move into commercial production.

Many roads, highways, parking lots or driveways can spend much their daytime unused. Sunlight can even break through gridlock to the road below. In 2006, Scott and Julie Brusaw hatched a plan to make use of all that untapped energy by replacing asphalt with toughened PV panels that would also include embedded lighting to act as road markings and driver alerts, as well as communication and power cables to replace overhead lines. The project received funding from the US Dept of Transportation to the tune of US$100,000 in August 2009, and work began on the first proof-of-concept prototype. By February 2010, the first 12 x 12 ft (3.7 x 3.7 m) road panel (made up of 16 smaller connected panels) was ready, complete with embedded LEDs that could be programmed to deliver custom messages. The proof-of-concept Phase I prototype didn’t include any PV cells and lacked the custom-hardened glass with integrated heating element for the upper face, but it served to demonstrate that the proposed electronics worked as promised. The team also built smaller crosswalk panels featuring load cells to test a pedestrian/wildlife detection mechanism, which would flash instructions to slow down when a weight was detected on the surface. Around this time, Scott Brusaw was invited to give a TED talk in Sacramento (which is worth a watch as it details much of the project’s inspiration, history and aims), and the project went on to win first prize in two of GE’s Ecomagination challenges.

The first hexagonal panels are installed outside the Solar Roadways electronics lab

After entertaining the world media circus for a while, and traveling around the country to deliver talks on the project, funding was secured in June of 2011 for the second phase of development – to create fully functional parking lot. Work on the electronics began immediately, and a site next to the electronics lab prepared for ground breaking. The Brusaws and their small, but dedicated, team of volunteers revealed a new hexagonal road panel design in July 2013, that would allow them “to handle curves easily and we designed the shape, macro and micro textures for stability, traction, strength.” The first batch of the completed new panels were ready for installation and testing by September. Spin forward to the end of last month, and the first photos of the now operational Solar Roadways parking lot were released. Each of the new panels features PV cells and circuit boards, 128 programmable LEDs, a heating element to help deal with ice and snow, and are topped with “super-strength” textured glass (which has exceeded expectations in load, traction and impact resistance testing). “Half of our prototype parking lot is mono-crystalline, while the other half is poly-crystalline,” Julie Brusaw told Gizmag. “The parking lot is equivalent to a 3600-watt solar array. The power collected is dependent upon the amount of sunshine received. So as with all solar, it will produce more in some parts of the country and world than others. We’ve moved power and data cables to a Cable Corridor alongside the road/parking lot,” she continued. “This provides easy access the power/data companies. It will give the cables a home and eliminate the need for overhead wires that are unsightly and subject to ice/breakage. The other way the power companies are handling it now is to bury them (sometimes right next to gas lines) in the dirt and dig them up with a shovel for access. So we can make utility companies’ work much easier and safer. Our system can also eliminate cell phone dead spots by installing a ‘leaky’ cable in the Cable Corridor. Our corridor can be a home for all kinds of cables including TV, fiber optic for high speed internet, phone, etc.” A section in the installation’s Cable Corridor has been included to store, treat and redistribute storm water, and the Brusaws sourced recycled glass and were able to incorporate 10 percent in the aggregate of the base layer of the prototype.

Currently, some 69 percent of the layer directly under the glass of each hexagonal unit is made up of photovoltaic cells, but that will increase to 100 percent prior to commercial production. Before that can happen, though, the Solar Roadways project has hit Indiegogo (starting, appropriately enough, on Earth Day) to help raise enough money to hire a team of engineers and other professionals, streamline the production process and move into manufacturing proper. A lofty funding target of $1 million has been set, and the project will receive all funding, even if the campaign goal is not met. Rewards include t-shirts, coffee mugs, a backer’s name engraved on one of the prototype’s 396 mounting hole covers, and samples of the toughened glass.

solar powered roadways by scott brusaw come to life with LED's
the hexagons utilize 36-watt solar panels, with 69-percent surface coverage by solar cells

This Couple Is Making Roads Out Of Solar Panels, And They Actually Work
by EMILY ATKIN  /  May 14, 2014

Finding a way to replace regular, concrete roads with ones that could better serve a sustainable world has long been Scott and Julie Brusaw’s dream. Lately, the couple has been working on that dream so much that — at least on Tuesday — they didn’t even sleep. “All of the publicity is keeping us hopping,” Julie said by e-mail on Wednesday afternoon, after Scott had fallen asleep. “I have over 6,800 unanswered emails in my inbox right now. Not counting all of the thousands I have responded to of course!”

If every roadway in the country were replaced with Solar Roadways — a huge feat, admittedly — Julie and Scott estimate that enough solar energy could be generated to entirely substitute power generated from fossil fuels, and then some. Combined with the fact that the roads could charge electric vehicles (and thereby increase the viability of those vehicles) the couple estimates that the roads would, if installed everywhere, have the ability to cut American greenhouse gas production by 75 percent. The couple also contends that the roadways would pay for themselves over time because of the fact that they generate power.

Now that the prototype is nearly finished (it still needs some mastic filling between the panels, and software for LED patterns), the couple’s hometown city of Sandpoint, Idaho is looking to be its first customer. If that happens, it would be the first solar-powered parking lot in the world. A far cry from an actual road, but a step, Julie said. “We want to install a sufficient number of parking lots, sidewalks, driveways etc., that we feel ready before moving on to roads,” she said. “However, we have potential customers waiting from all over the country and all over the world, so we are hoping to move very quickly.If we meet our goal on Indiegogo, that will enable us to hire our initial team, and gear up for production.”

Artist's rendition of a Solar Roadway in downtown Sandpoint, Idaho.
Artist’s rendition of a Solar Roadway in downtown Sandpoint, Idaho {Sam Cornett}


In 2012, designboom covered the first prototype stage of american electrical engineer scott brusaw’s system of solar powered roads. conceived as an initiative to change the face of national highways by re-purposing them with photo-voltaic panels, the idea for ‘solar roadways’ was to introduce smart streets capable of directly inputting energy into ‘the grid’. if realized, the concept could essentially power an entire country with the generated electricity.

solar powered roadways by scott brusaw come to life with LED's
artist’s rendition of a sidewalk/parking lot application in sandpoint, idaho

Now in it’s second prototyping stage, the project has been further developed as a modular photovoltaic (PV) paving system that can withstand the heaviest of trucks – up to 120,000 kilograms. the plan would see the ‘solar road’ panels installed on highways, parking lots, driveways, sidewalks, bike paths and even playgrounds. the system is based on centralized power stations, and distribution is handled through transmission lines and relay centers. each panel has its own microprocessor, which communicates wirelessly with the surrounding panels – they monitor each other for malfunctions or problems.

solar powered roadways by scott brusaw come to life with LED's
the panels can withstand the heaviest of trucks – up to 120,000 kilograms. electric vehicles will be able to charge with energy from the parking lots and driveways, and after a roadway system is in place, mutual induction technology will allow for charging while driving.


Our long range goal is to cover all concrete and asphalt surfaces that are exposed to the sun with Solar Road Panels. This will lead to the end of our dependency on fossil fuels of any kind. We’re aware that this won’t happen overnight. We’ll need to start off small: driveways, bike paths, patios, sidewalks, parking lots, playgrounds, etc. This is where we’ll learn our lessons and perfect our system. Once the lessons have been learned and the bugs have all been resolved, we’ll plan to move out onto public roads.

Imagine one major fast-food chain retrofitting their parking lots across the nation: an all-electric vehicle (EV) could now recharge in those parking lots when needed. This removes the range limitation for EVs (eliminating their need to be recharged at home every night) and makes them far more practical. People would be more likely to trade in their internal-combustion engine vehicles for all-electric vehicles.

A new hexagonal road panel was revealed in July 2013

Other businesses would see the advantage of retrofitting their parking lots: they could either go off-grid or put a huge dent in their monthly electric bill. They would also attract more customers, who would eat or shop in their stores as their EVs recharged in their parking lots. As more businesses jump on board, the EVs become more and more practical. With businesses going solar (rather than using electricity created by burning fossil fuels) and more drivers opting for EVs (over gas/diesel engines), the beginning of the end of fossil fuel dependency would finally be at hand.

After the Solar Roadways technology is proven in parking lots, then the next logical step would be residential roads, where speeds are slower than highways and trucks are not as common. The final goal should be the nation’s highways. We’re already investigating using mutual inductance to charge EVs traveling over the Solar Road Panels. While it may not (although we don’t know this yet) provide enough electricity to completely charge the EV in motion, it would certainly extend its range.

Comment by Scott Brusaw  / September 18 2007

Hi everyone,
I’m Scott Brusaw, co-inventor and project director of the Solar Roadways project. I’m sorry that I missed the opportunity to address the concerns raised here when these comments were originally posted. Someone just told me about this article. I appreciate all of the discussion, pro and con. When I explain the concept to people, a few of them (usually scientists and other engineers) grasp the concept immediately and I enjoy watching their eyes light up, but mostly I see confused faces at first or hear comments like “pie in the sky” until I’ve talked long enough to present the whole vision. When people take the time to understand the entire project, I’ve found that perhaps 98% love the idea. If you just take a few parts of the idea in isolation, it might not seem to make sense. The article presented here at TreeHugger gives only a smattering of the information on my website, I appreciated the comment from Doug, who pointed out that if you actually read the website, most of the criticisms given here are addressed. I hope the other comment writers will explore the website as well, to learn what the project actually entails.

Nick, you challenged anyone to come up with just one good reason for putting solar panels on roads. If you will go to our website, you will find dozens. And your assumption regarding how I came up with this idea is incorrect. Solar Roadways is an intricate system for revamping our entire transportation infrastructure, not a random idea to slap some solar cells on the roadways. There are some things not yet covered on the website, so I’ll try to give your some detail here.

Let’s cover some cost figures:
Saul Wall, your comments about the problems with current road construction certainly come into play when it comes to the numbers of how this can financially be feasible. Let me start off by making a correction: the target cost for a 12’ by12’ Solar Road panel is $10K, not $5K. We picked this target price to be competitive with current (actually 2006) costs of asphalt roads. The most realistic number we could place on the cost per square foot of asphalt road (in the US) was $16.00 (this does not include maintenance or snow removal). We met with the director of the Idaho Transportation Department and presented this number to him after finding it on the Internet. After thinking it through for a mile of roadway, came to the conclusion that it was “in the ball park”. If correct, then a 12’ by 12’ section of asphalt road costs (12x12x16) $2304 to build. Unfortunately, the average US road is only designed to last seven years before it must be ripped up and repaved. We’re designing our Solar Road Panels to last over 20 years, so in fairness, you’d have to triple the cost of the asphalt roads (3 x $2304 = $6912) for a real comparison. So we’re at $6912 for (what I like to call) “dumb asphalt” roads – they just sit there and absorb heat and return nothing but potholes and heartache. Keep in mind that eliminating the need for coal-fired power plants and (God-forbid) nuclear power plants, we can roll all of the money that would be spent on future power plants into the Solar Roadways. Consider too, that the Solar Road Panels will be generating and distributing power (along with cable TV, telephone, high-speed internet access, etc.) to homes and businesses everywhere. It is difficult to calculate the cost savings over today’s conventional delivery methods, but I think it’s fair to say that this brings the costs of asphalt and Solar Road Panels into the same ballpark.

The Idaho Transportation Department was excited about the idea of building roads out of new materials, primarily because asphalt is petroleum based, and the cost of asphalt is projected to skyrocket over the next five years. That $16 per square foot will begin to sound attractive. The experts, along with OPEC, estimate that the world will run out of oil in 50 years. Since OPEC is known to lie about their oil reserves (they’re only allowed to sell a certain percentage of their reserves each year and their reserve numbers haven’t changed in ten years), my guess is that we’ve got about 20 years of oil left. What will we make our roads out of then? Some posters protest that the Solar Roadways will cost too much. The money is going to be spent anyway- repaving and maintaining our current roads, parking lots, and driveways. Why not get something out of it (clean, renewable energy among other things) and solve the climate crisis in the process? Chris mentioned building solar panels over the highways. That would simply double the cost of current road construction and not solve the problem of, “what are we going to replace the asphalt with?”

smart streets and solar roadways produces energy for the power-grid
snow test – powered row is snow/ice free 

Non-existing technology:
Some mention has been made of the “not-yet-existing” technology. In truth, the only non-existing part of the Solar Road Panel is the top surface: the glass that you actually drive upon. Being an engineer, I knew early on that the surface would have to withstand the static and dynamic forces of a fully loaded semi-truck locking up its brakes at 80mph – no easy task. I prepared a list of specifications for this glass surface, including (but not limited to) the following: it must be fire-proof, transparent in one direction, provide traction at least equivalent to current asphalt roads, be able to withstand sand, salt, magnesium chloride, and every other material known to be used for snow/ice removal, be anti-glare, etc. I sent these specifications to the three top materials science research laboratories in the US: Penn State University Research Institute, MIT, and the University of Dayton Research Institute respectively. This past February, I visited the University of Dayton Research Institute. They assured me that the material for the top surface of our Solar Roadway Panel could be created – it would just take time and money. In April, Penn State invited me to attend the 1st International Workshop on Scientific Challenges of New Functionalities in Glass in Arlington, Virginia. I presented our Solar Roadways project to the group, and made some interesting contacts. I was invited to travel to Penn State’s Research Institute to present our project to their faculty. Walt Mills, from Penn State, wrote a nice article about the entire trip. You can see the article at:… I learned a great deal about glass during this trip. I had no idea how many properties and uses glass had. For instance, self-cleaning glass exists, which may solve the problem about keeping it clear of road grime. Obviously, curved sections must be made available. Much like our old childhood racing tracks, the Solar Road Panels could be produced in any size and shape.

solar powered roadways by scott brusaw come to life with LED's
excess power produced by the system can feed surrounding neighborhoods

Other concerns:
I’ve heard other complaints: how much CO2 will be produced by manufacturing Solar Road Panels? That’s like complaining that Al Gore uses jet fuel to enlighten the world about Global Warming. Here’s my best answer: yes – the first manufacturing facility will probably use coal-fired electricity to produce the first run of Solar Road Panels. If this is true, then the first panels will contribute to the CO2 emissions that cause Global Warming. However, the first Solar Road Panels that roll off the assembly line will go directly out to the parking lot, where they will be installed and connected to form the very first Solar Roadways parking lot. Soon after, the manufacturing facility (and all that follow it) will take itself “off-grid” and provide its own power.

What happens during gridlock or when parking lots are full? What about sections of the road that never see sunshine? The short answer is that it doesn’t matter: every Solar Road Panel is an energy storage unit. You would even install them in tunnels that never see the light of day. They won’t collect energy, but they’ll store energy collected by the other Solar Road Panels. Since we’ll be producing three times the amount of electricity actually used (by the US), only one-third of the Solar Road Panels ever need to be exposed to sunlight.

solar powered roadways by scott brusaw come to life with LED's
LEDs can be programmed to dimmed or even turned off

I appreciate the “elegant energy solution” remark by Ken Fabos and the encouragement from Mark about thinking, “outside the box”. I believe that is exactly what will be required to solve the Global Warming problem – and it needs to happen quickly. Initial calculations show that this project alone would eliminate approximately half of the Global Warming problem. The other half could be eliminated by solving the biggest problem with all-electric cars: the need for places to plug in to allow for long trips. This would mean the end of our dependence on foreign oil, and the current concern that we are running out of oil. Coal mining would no longer be needed. In response to Nick Butcher’s comment that “It’s a solar panel people, it doesn’t matter where you put it”. Actually it does. The largest obstacle to solar power today is the logistical nightmare of getting the power into the power grid. The Solar Roadways solve that problem by BECOMING the power grid with the capacity to send power wherever it’s needed.

Sam-Hec is thinking along the lines of the project with his mention of solar powered call boxes. That is one of the features of the solar roadways. Add to that cell stops where hybrid and fully electric cars (which will likely become the norm) will plug in to recharge, stoplights powered with the energy from the road, embedded LEDs lighting the road lines for safer night driving, snow and ice free roads for safer winter driving, the millions of animals lives that will be saved by keeping them off of the roads, the beautiful scenery you will be enjoying thanks to the new lack of utility poles and power stations, no more “dead zones” for cell phones, and the handy warnings this smart road will give you when there is a problem ahead and you just might want to take a detour. The panels will be available for purchase for driveways and walkways if you’d like to power your house while keeping them free of snow and ice and I guess, if you still want to, you could put one on your roof….

I’d welcome more questions and comments.
Thanks, Scott Brusaw

Energy breakthrough uses sun to create solar energy materials
A new technology uses sunshine directly in the production of solar energy materials {Graphic by Ki-Joong Kim}

Energy breakthrough uses sun to create solar energy materials  /  Apr 03, 2014

In a recent advance in solar energy, researchers have discovered a way to tap the sun not only as a source of power, but also to directly produce the solar energy materials that make this possible.  This breakthrough by chemical engineers at Oregon State University could soon reduce the cost of solar energy, speed production processes, use environmentally benign materials, and make the sun almost a “one-stop shop” that produces both the materials for solar devices and the eternal energy to power them.

The findings were just published in RSC Advances, a journal of the Royal Society of Chemistry, in work supported by the National Science Foundation. “This approach should work and is very environmentally conscious,” said Chih-Hung Chang, a professor of chemical engineering at Oregon State University, and lead author on the study. “Several aspects of this system should continue to reduce the cost of solar energy, and when widely used, our carbon footprint,” Chang said. “It could produce solar energy materials anywhere there’s an adequate solar resource, and in this chemical manufacturing process, there would be zero energy impact.”The work is based on the use of a “continuous flow” microreactor to produce nanoparticle inks that make solar cells by printing. Existing approaches based mostly on batch operations are more time-consuming and costly. In this process, simulated sunlight is focused on the solar microreactor to rapidly heat it, while allowing precise control of temperature to aid the quality of the finished product. The light in these experiments was produced artificially, but the process could be done with direct sunlight, and at a fraction of the cost of current approaches “Our system can synthesize solar energy materials in minutes compared to other processes that might take 30 minutes to two hours,” Chang said. “This gain in operation speed can lower cost.”In these experiments, the solar materials were made with copper indium diselenide, but to lower material costs it might also be possible to use a compound such as copper zinc tin sulfide, Chang said. And to make the process something that could work 24 hours a day, sunlight might initially be used to create molten salts that could later be used as an energy source for the manufacturing. This could provide more precise control of the processing temperature needed to create the solar energy materials State-of-the-art chalcogenide-based, thin film solar cells have already reached a fairly high solar energy conversion efficiency of about 20 percent in the laboratory, researchers said, while costing less than silicon technology. Further improvements in efficiency should be possible, they said.Another advantage of these thin-film approaches to solar energy is that the solar absorbing layers are, in fact, very thin – about 1-2 microns, instead of the 50-100 microns of more conventional silicon cells. This could ease the incorporation of solar energy into structures, by coating thin films onto windows, roof shingles or other possibilities.

Map shows distributed generation (mostly solar photovoltaic or PV) on each circuit compared to 15% of peak electricity demand, or “load” on each circuit

Photovoltaics proved so successful in Hawaii that the local utility, HECO, has instituted policies to block further expansion
by Anne C. Mulkern and ClimateWire  /  Dec 20, 2013

William Walker and his wife, Mi Chong, wanted to join what’s seen as a solar revolution in Hawaii. Shortly after buying their Oahu home earlier this year, they plunked down $35,000 for a rooftop photovoltaic system. The couple looked forward to joining neighbors who had added panels, to cutting their $250 monthly power bills and to knowing they were helping the environment. Their plans shifted the day after the PV panels went up in early October. The Walkers learned from a neighbor about a major change in the local utility’s solar policy. It led to those 18 panels sitting dormant nearly three months later.Hawaiian Electric Co., or HECO, in September told solar contractors on Oahu that the island’s solar boom is creating problems. On many circuits, the utility said, there’s so much solar energy that it poses a threat to the system and a safety issue. Studies are needed on whether grid upgrades are necessary. If they are, residents adding solar must foot the bill. And starting immediately, contractors and residents would need permission to connect most small rooftop systems to the grid.The new HECO policy was included deep in the text of emails the Walkers’ solar contractor had sent, but it escaped their notice before installation. They’re now paying $300 per month on a loan for the panels, plus the $250 electric bill. “It goes from frustration to outrage,” William Walker, 33, said of his reaction. “We hear the excuses that HECO provides, that they put out there at least as far as the justification. There’s really not a lot of substantiation. My belief is it’s purely profit-motivated, to keep people away from PV and keep them on the grid.” HECO officials called it a needed precaution. “We can’t allow circuits to become dangerous,” said Peter Rosegg, a utility spokesman. “We can’t allow circuits to become unreliable because there’s too much PV on those circuits.”The policy change halted what has been a solar surge in Hawaii. Installations there jumped 169 percent last year from 2011. More than 4 percent of households have photovoltaics. Hawaii last year led the nation in the portion of its electricity that comes from solar, with 2.6 percent. The Aloha State burns oil to make electricity, and prices for the fuel have jumped in recent years, igniting demand for alternatives. The state’s tax credit for solar energy made it additionally appealing (ClimateWire, May 6). The new struggle on Hawaii foreshadows what the rest of the country could face as solar moves closer to the mainstream, several involved in the debate said. “Hawaii is a crystal ball into what every other state is going to have to look at as they start reaching higher and higher levels of solar activity,” said Robert Harris, executive director of Sierra Club Hawaii. “There is a national debate about what is the future model of the utility. That is happening in real time in Hawaii.”

‘I am from the future’
The Hawaii development comes amid battles in California, Arizona and Colorado over the future of net energy metering (NEM). That policy — which exists in some form in 43 states and the District of Columbia — lets households with renewable energy earn bill credits for surplus power delivered to the grid. Utilities in states with growing levels of solar have argued that fixed fees and other changes are needed because customers with net metering bill credits don’t pay their fair share of transmission and distribution charges. The Golden State’s Legislature has ordered the California Public Utilities Commission to retool NEM by 2015. The new program will need to be “based on electrical system costs and benefits to nonparticipating ratepayers.” Arizona’s utility regulator last month approved a hike in the surcharge that solar customers with net metering pay the state’s largest utility. The Arizona Corporation Commission ordered workshops to study the value and costs associated with NEM. Conversations about net metering are beginning in Louisiana, parts of Texas, Illinois, New York and Massachusetts (ClimateWire, Dec. 11). Charles Wang, with the Hawaii ECO Project, at a solar conference in San Diego earlier this month warned people from other states that Hawaii is a “cautionary tale” and “something that you will face down the road in your marketplaces. I am from the future,” Wang told a room of industry and environmental representatives. “The utility is that 800-pound gorilla. If you push it to the corner of the room, it’s going to fight back. That’s what’s happening right now.”

The HECO policy is only for Oahu, but a similar rule already is in effect on Maui and the Big Island. It’s more controversial on Oahu, however, because it’s home to about 80 percent of the state’s population. About 900,000 people live on Oahu. On Oahu, 10 percent of utility customers will have rooftop solar by year-end, Rosegg said. That compares with California, where it is 2 to 3 percent, he said. And demand for new connections for PV has been heavy. “These applications were rolling in at such an aggressive rate. … We simply had to get advance notice that these were coming in,” Rosegg said. The utility’s grid wasn’t designed for power to go two directions, Rosegg said. The ability for PV to make more power than would be used in a neighborhood creates a situation where there is “overvoltage.” The energy can flow back to the substation, he said, which can lead to reliability problems and possibly surges. And if crews are working in the area, there’s a potential danger. Others say the utility fears more solar expansion and hasn’t developed a plan to adjust. “It’s no doubt a threat, and down the road utilities have to seriously look at their business model,” said Leslie Cole-Brooks, Hawaii Solar Energy Association executive director. “It’s a whole new era because these technologies are available.” The HECO change has triggered a push for help from the state’s Legislature when it reconvenes Jan. 15. Sierra Club Hawaii and others are working on potential bills to ease the burden on homeowners. Measures could include helping the utility make grid improvements, said Harris with Sierra Club Hawaii. The goal is to make sure more renewable energy can come online, he said, and to develop a way to pay for it that is “fair and equitable” for all customers.

System closing soon?
The new edict for Oahu mostly focuses on grid circuits where power available from rooftop solar reaches or exceeds 100 percent of the minimum daytime load, the low point of the total power that customers on a circuit are using. Areas at that level will require interconnection requirements studies. Circuits at 75 percent could also need the studies. Residents who want to add solar in other parts of Oahu must apply with HECO and wait for approval. About one-fourth of circuits on Oahu are at 100 percent, Rosegg said. At the current rate of adoption, Harris said, all electrical circuits controlled by the utility could be closed to small-scale solar within six months. HECO, meanwhile, is planning interconnection studies on what it calls “representative” circuits “already heavily loaded with PV.” It will use the results to evaluate other circuits and tell customers who want to add solar what they’d need to pay to upgrade the grid. Changes could include adding grounding transformers or increasing the capacity of a substation, Rosegg said. The utility’s analysis won’t be finished until early next year.

Hawaii’s solar market slowed dramatically after HECO’s letter. Permits for photovoltaic projects issued on Oahu fell to 1,246 in October, down 49 percent from a high of 2,433 a year earlier. Last month they were at 1,040, a 48 percent drop from 1,996 in November 2012. Marco Mangelsdorf, president of ProVision Solar on the Big Island, pulled the data from the Honolulu County and city planning website. Before the HECO policy change, Walter’s Electric — based on the Big Island — was setting company records for solar installations. The last three months of the year look especially promising, said company President Kaimi Walter Chung. “It looked like we were going to have our best quarter,” Chung said. “We were ramping up to do a lot of jobs.” Now Walter’s Electric has 70 customers on Oahu and 50 on other islands waiting for installation approval. Chung has had to focus more on the electrical services his company provides. Other solar companies have developed new sales strategies to attract business, including selling the idea of independence. Island Pacific Energy ran a full-page advertisement in the local paper promoting the idea of buying batteries for solar storage and sidestepping HECO’s rule. “Get solar now,” the ad said. “No waiting for utility approval. No added grid upgrade costs.” Poncho’s Solar ran an ad telling people they can opt for batteries and “avoid those extra costs.”

Systems would have to be independent of the grid to sidestep the safety review and potential grid upgrade costs, Rosegg said. Disconnecting from the grid is not realistic for most people, Chung said. The current state of battery technology means they have to be replaced after a few years, he said. And putting a system with batteries on a typical house would cost $40,000 versus $25,000 for one without the storage component, he said. Moreover, the battery portion isn’t eligible for the tax credits. “Eventually, I guess that’s how people are going to have to go, but I don’t think it’s feasible” right now, Chung said.

Installing solar without approval
Some customers are going forward with solar despite HECO’s new policy. Ron Hayashi, 61, this week had solar panels installed on his Oahu home, despite not having HECO approval to connect to the grid. The neighborhood where he lives already has solar capacity at 100 percent of the minimum daily load. Hayashi withdrew money from his 401(k) in order to buy a $14,800 solar system for his house. He wanted to get it connected by year’s end to take advantage of state and federal tax credits. After factoring those in, the electric bill savings from the panels will mean the investment is paid back in just under two years, he said. Hayashi bought a system with batteries called an “energy shifter” and believes — based on what his solar contractor told him — that HECO cannot refuse to connect the home once the utility’s safety study is complete. He needs to be connected for the system to work. “If I use the energy shifter, they cannot refuse you,” Hayashi said.

Cole-Brooks with the Hawaii Solar Energy Association said she and other advocates are talking to HECO about making accommodations for households that have batteries but want to be connected to the grid. There’s not a safety issue posed by those systems, she said, because extra power is going into the batteries and not the grid. But Rosegg with HECO said that right now there is no special treatment for systems that have batteries. Because there’s confusion about the rules, he said, the utility plans to run an advertisement in the local paper in a few days cautioning people that even if they are buying systems with batteries, they need to first contact HECO. “Nobody has a special dispensation to connect to the grid,” Rosegg said. “Everybody has to go through the process. If an inspection is needed, we’ll do that. If upgrades are needed, we’ll do that. Everybody is treated the same.”

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