There has been no shortage of both hype and skepticism surrounding a proposed innovation whose creators champion as potentially solving North America’s energy woes: Solar Roadways. While there are reasonable concerns about the technical and economic viability of incorporating solar panels into street and highways, almost completely ignored are the sociopolitical facets of the issue. Even if they end up being technically and financially feasible, the question of “Why should we want them?” remains unanswered. Too readily do commentators forget that at stake is not merely how Americans get their electricity but the very organization of everyday life and the character of their communities.
Solar Roadways technology is the brainchild of an Idaho start-up. It involves sandwiching photovoltaics between a textured, tempered road surface and a concrete bedding that houses other necessary electronics, such as storage batteries and/or the circuitry needed to connect it to the electrical grid. Others have raised issue over the fairly rosy estimates of these panels’ likely cost and potential performance, including their driveability and longevity as well as whether or not factors like snowfall, low temperatures in northern states and road grime will drastically reduce their efficiency. Given that life cycle analyses of rooftop solar panels estimate energy payback periods of ten to twenty years, any reduction in efficiency makes PV systems much less feasible. Will the panels actually last long enough to offset the energy it takes to build, distribute and install them? The extensive history of expensive technological failures should alert citizens to the need to address such worries before this technology is embraced on a massive scale.
However, these reasonable technical concerns should not distract one from looking into the potential sociocultural consequences of implementing solar roadways. One of the main observations of Science and Technology Studies scholarship is that technologies have political consequences: Their very existence and functioning renders some choices and sets of actions possible and others more difficult if not impossible. One of the most obvious examples is how the transportation infrastructures implemented since the 1940’s have rendered walkable, vibrant urban areas in the United States exceedingly difficult to realize. Residents of downtown Albany, for instance, are practically prohibited from being able to choose to have a pleasant waterfront area on the edge of the Hudson River because mid-twentieth century state legislators decided to put I-787 there (partly in order to facilitate their own commutes into the city). Contemporary advocates for an accessible and vibrant waterfront not only face opposition from today’s legislators but also the disincentives posed by the costs and difficulties of moving millions of tons of sunk concrete and disrupting the established transportation network.
Solar Roadways, therefore, is not merely a promising green energy idea but also potentially a mechanism for further entrenching the current transportation system of roads and highways. It is politically consequential technology. Most citizens are already committed to the highway and automobile system for their transportation needs, in part also due to the intentional dismantling and neglect of public transit. Having to rely on the highway and road system for electricity would only make moving away from car culture and toward walkable cities more difficult. It is socially and politically challenging to alter infrastructure once it is entrenched. Dismantling a solarfied I-787 in Albany, for example, would not simply require disrupting transportation networks but energy systems as well. If states were to implement solar roadways, it would be effectively an act of legislation that helps ensure that automobile-oriented lifestyles remain dominant for decades to come.
This further entrenchment of automobility may be exactly why the idea of solar roadways seems so enticing to some. Solar Roadways is an example of what is known in Science and Technology Studies as a “techno-fix.” It promises the solving of complex sociotechnical problems through a “miracle” innovation and, hence, without the need to make difficult social and political decisions (see here for an STS-inspired take). That is, solar roadways are so alluring because they seem to provide an easy solution to the problems of climate change and growing energy scarcity. No need to implement carbon taxes, drive less or better regulate industry and the exploitation non-renewable resources, the technology will fix everything! To be fair, techno-fixes are not always bad. The point is only that one should be cautiously critical of them in order to not risk falling victim to wide-eyed techno-idealism.
Some readers, of course, might still be skeptical of my interpretation of solar roadways as techno-fix perhaps aimed more at saving car culture than creating a more sustainable technological civilization. However, one simply need to ask “Why roadways rather than rooftops?” It does not take much expertise in renewable energy technologies to recognize that solar panels on rooftops make much more sense than on streets, highways and parking lots: They last longer because they are not subject to having cars and trucks drive on them; they can be angled to maximize the incidence of the sun’s rays; and there is likely just as much unused roof space as asphalt. Given all the additional barriers they face, it seems hard to deny that some of appeal of solar roadways is not technical but cultural: They promise the stabilization and entrenchment of a valued but likely unsustainable way of life.
Nevertheless, I do not want to simply shoot down solar roadway technology but ask “How could it be used to support ways of life other than car culture?” Critically analyzing a technology from a Science and Technology Studies perspective can often lead to recommendations for its reconstruction, not simply its abandonment. I would suggest reinterpreting this proposed innovation as solar walkways rather than roadways, given that their longevity is more certain if subjected to footsteps instead of multi-ton vehicles. Moreover, as urban studies scholars have documented for decades, most urban and suburban spaces in North America suffer from a lack of quality public space. City plazas and town squares might seem more “rational” to municipal planners if their walking surfaces were made up of PV panels. Better yet, consider incorporating piezoelectrics at the same time and generate additional electricity from the pedestrians walking on it. Feed this energy into a collectively owned community energy system and one has the makings of a technology that, along with a number of other sociotechnical and political changes, could help make more vibrant, public urban spaces easier to realize.
Citizens, certainly, could decide that solar walkways are no more feasible or attractive than solar roadways, and should investigate potential uses that go far beyond what I have suggested. Regardless, part of the point of Science and Technology Studies is to creatively re-imagine how technologies and social structures could mutually reinforce each other in order to support alternative or more desirable ways of life. Despite all the Silicon Valley rhetoric around “disruption,” new innovations tend be framed and implemented in ways that favor the status quo and, in turn, those who benefit from it. The supposed “disruption” posed by solar roadway technology is little different. Members of technological civilization would be better off if they not only asked of new innovations “Is it feasible?” but also “Does it support a sustainable and desirable way of life?” Solar freakin’ roadways might be viable, but citizens should reconsider if they really want the solar freakin’ car culture that comes with it.