Monday, May 26, 2014

Solar Freakin' Hype

So this IndieGoGo pitch is circulating social media:

And here's a link to the IndieGoGo page:
And here's a link to the company behind it:

The pitch is for SOLAR FREAKIN' ROADWAYS. (I think the "freakin'" is a required component of the name.).

Now, I'm always a bit wary of ads (and yes, this is an ad) that channel Idiocracy to show you only the positives and none of the negatives while actually portraying you, the listener, as a brain-dead surfer dude. It's said to pay for itself, but when? What's the actual rate of return? If, like many solar panels, that extends beyond the working life of the panel, then it does not pay for itself. And the rate of return for these would have to be far higher than that of residential panels due to the increased complexity and cost of manufacture. This isn't addressed.

Furthermore, what is the environmental impact of harvesting the chemicals required to make photovoltaic cells on this scale? It isn't free. Where will they get them, and what exactly is the availability of these materials? Is this sustainable?

Also, consideration has to be made of applicability of use. Some of the places most likely to embrace them are also places where their usefulness may be spotty. I'm lookin' at you, California. How do these things hold up during an earthquake? Even a small one with no apparent lasting effect may break thousands of panels and circuit boards that are rigidly interlocked on the ground. This could be addressed by spacing them, but then we have the issue of windblown dust and sand settling in, shortly followed by grasses and weeds. Lovely. We haven't even solved that problem with asphalt and concrete.

We know these work, and have been tested on a small scale. Before we all shout "YAAAAY" and jump into the fjord together I'd like to see a serious, sober implementation plan that addresses real concerns and not just the surfer-dude strawmen in the video.

Investment opportunity?

I could very well see myself investing such a thing IF it were an investment and IF it had a sound plan. But from these guys I see a lot of red flags that curb my enthusiasm for the vision of this project lead by these people.

Red Flag #1: Capital "PROVES". Hype-alert. My standard of proof is a lot higher than one seven-minute fact-deficient infomercial.

Red Flag #2: "Solar Freakin' Roadways". They start off by telegraphing that you're not going to learn much of use here, except that you've got interlocking panels that will be expensive. How expensive? Each is expensive enough to withstand pressure from the heaviest vehicles that can be placed or carried on a road, contain computerized multicolor LED graphic arrays, heating elements and solar panels, and the capacity to route data and power both out of themselves, but also through themselves. Each must be individually addressable, and there will be millions upon millions of them.

Red Flag #3: Panacea. You get the idea from #2. This would not just be replacement infrastructure for roads, but also for a replacement data web; for storm water management; for bulk data transmissions; for power generation. You name it, this does it, flawlessly.

Red Flag #4: No down sides. Nothing at all about mining materials, or the availability of those materials, or whether they're available here or from, say, China... and if not here, nothing about competition for these materials from other countries (similar practical tests on smart roadways have already been done in Europe using competing technologies).

Red Flag #5: More government. The underwear gnomes are running the show.
That profit is loosely defined as universal everything to everybody. Roads, Jobs, Data, Cooler Planet, Save the Birdies, Star Trek Economy, etc. And the way to do that is through mo' bigger government. When your plan is to invent something and be a monopoly selling it to the government on a short time span, then you need another plan... and another planner. And if that is not your plan then you need to fess up and tell your investors what the plan actually is.

Red Flag #6: "This isn't just donating; it's an investment in a real future." Well, actually it is donating. More accurately, it is a glorified bake sale. This is a sale of thank-you notes and ball caps and t-shirts and other small tchotchkes, the proceeds of which go to the company, Solar Roadways. An investment would entail some level of ownership and return for the investor. That would mean stock, and that means a prospectus and answering those sticky questions I already posed. Frankly they wouldn't be able to treat stockholders like pizza-and-beer-laden late-night infomercial junkies if this were actually an investment. And frankly, I'm turned off when the saviors of the universe feel they have to lie to me to get my money.

Red Flag #7: Saviors of the Universe    .
I'm sure that Scott and Julie Brusaw are nice people, but they're way over-hyped here. I cannot tell you how infuriating it is to have the narrator of your Indigogo pitch, that you commissioned for your product pretend that you are too modest to blow your own horn. Another trigger for me is that nowhere on the Indiegogo page are Scott and Julie identified by last name. This is an old advertising trick of pushing "down-homeyness" and "feel-goodedness" so that you're emotionally invested in them as people, and don't think too hard about what they say. I'm sure Scott and Julie are not intending to lie to you; they're just really jazzed about the possibilities and are wearing the blinders of enthusiasm that are worn by nearly all driven and creative people. But they're not quantifying actual returns; they just assume that they will happen and will be enough, and that omission is a lie. Whoever told them to push this as a cult of personality isn't doing them any favors. We gave a U.S. President a freakin' Nobel Peace Prize on the basis of personality, and it didn't buy us a moment's peace. I'm sure as hell not buying into the largest infrastructure project in the history of the country based on a warm smile.

Those aren't all the red flags, but they give you the idea.

No, really... investment opportunity?

Not as it stands, no. But it could be.

I think that this is a really good idea for sports courts and private deployment where "cool" is a factor and cost is secondary. I can see an immediate market for the panels; and in some of those applications they wouldn't need to be as heavy duty as they would for road use. There would have to be a different manufacturing process anyway since the road units have a knobbed surface that wouldn't do for tennis or basketball.

But for the stated vision there are a few things that would need to be done to get my support:

  • Answer the questions regarding return. We need to know the cost of a panel, the sourcing of the materials, the life expectancy, the total power generated in direct sunlight, the total power generated in the shade (parking lots are filled with cars, y'know), and a lot more beside. How much power must a single panel generate over it's life to give us a return? Does it generate that much power? Does it last long enough to reach profitability before replacement? Remember, you didn't promise us "break-even", so show us the profit.
  • Show me that these LED lights are clearly visible in direct sunlight from the angle of a driver in a car without being washed out by the glare of the glass surface. Show me that it's superior to alternative technology such as solar-powered signage, which will never be affected by road wear and which doesn't have to be viewed at a sharp angle. The working panels you actually show in the video are not comparable with your artist's renditions, so you have something to prove here.
  • Show me that they're still clearly visible after heavy use and repeated cleanings, and won't be rendered unusable when sand is ground into the surfaces by heavy rubber tires. Even if the electronics last forever, mechanical wear must factor into the lifespan (and therefore economic return) of the unit.
  • Show me the amount of power degradation under the same circumstances. Also, today we fix potholes but we don't wash entire roads. Show me the cost of cleaning.
  • Collecting power is only part of the equation. Storing and releasing it is another part. This takes batteries or capacitors, which wear down over time. Show me that you have the battery problem licked. How often do those have to be replaced? At what cost? What is the plan for recycling and/or disposal of spent batteries?
  • In other words, show me what these devices willl look like and how they'll perform five and ten years from now with realistic wear and tear.
  • These are glass surfaces, which are inherently slick. Show me that they provide safe traction.
  • Drop the over-hyped grandiose plans. Show me something that works and some verbiage behind "Phase 2". Here's a suggestion: Start with sales of parking lots and recreation courts to private customers. Parking lots that would generate power for the businesses they serve. Let's see a sales pitch tailored to those private deployments. If you can't sell a business owner on "free energy", then you shouldn't be selling it to credulous taxpayers.
  • Don't tell me how wonderful you are. I'll decide that for myself based on results.

Wrapping Up

When you invent a hammer, it doesn't follow that every problem is a nail. Someone on Facebook has astutely pointed out that she lives in Arizona, and if solar power were everything it's advertised to be, then given the high cost of electricity there, every house would have a solar panel roof. There are limitations, and you cannot "Hey, brah" your way through them.

Here's some competing (or perhaps complementary) technology from the Netherlands, in use now.

A solar-powered variable
message sign from
Dambach UK
With regard to these, everything save for induction lanes can be applied to existing roadways. I will say that there's precious little that photo-luminescent paint can provide that's not already provided in the US by reflective "cat's-eyes". And road way markings don't strike me as superior in every case to solar-powered roadside signage, no matter the technology that's employed.

I realize that Solar Roadways' value proposition is for the generation of power, and that all the markings and safety feature come along for the ride, BUT... they haven't demonstrated to their "investors" that the technology is durable or safe, or even that it works well enough to justify the manufacture of millions of units that are vastly more complicated and expensive than even standard solar cells; In the meantime we have a number of alternative technologies that can provide similar safety features at a minuscule fraction of the cost.

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