Why Solar Roads are a Bad Idea

If you paid attention to the news last spring, you may remember that solar roads were experiencing their 15 minutes of fame. There were newspaper articles, TV reports, viral Facebook messages, and at least one Kickstarter campaign to fund this ambitious project. The concept was to start covering our roads with small, modular solar panels to generate electricity. The implication of most of the reports was that generating electricity from our roads was going to usher in a golden era of plenty, and generally included an undertone suggesting that we had somehow been blind in not perceiving this veritable cornucopia of energy before. Then suddenly the 15 minutes were over. Let me explain why.

solarroadsThe electricity-generating part of a solar panel is made from a semi-conductor, usually silicon. A semi-conductor is just what it sounds like: something that will conduct electricity, but only a little bit. When sunlight shines on a solar panel, electrons migrate away from one of the surfaces and towards the other. If I now connect these two surfaces of the panel to a circuit, electrons will flow through the circuit. Voila, electricity! The type of electricity generated by a solar panel is direct current (DC), which means that electrons flow through the circuit in the same direction all of the time.

In contrast to the DC electricity generated by a solar panel, the electricity in our homes is alternating current (AC). In an AC circuit, the electrons move back and forth, switching directions 60 times every second. In order to understand why our houses have AC rather than DC electricity, we have to go way back to the 1880s and the War of the Currents.

By the 1880s, Thomas Edison had accumulated a number of patents for the generation and distribution of DC electricity and was collaborating with George Westinghouse to commercialize them. At about the same time in Europe, a number of inventors and engineers were developing AC technologies. In order to get a better understanding of these developments in Europe, in 1884 Edison hired Nikola Tesla, an electrical engineer who had been born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1856. Not long after arriving in the United States, Tesla learned that due to Edison’s ego and personal attachment to DC electricity, he would not have a real chance to continue his work on AC technologies. So Tesla found some investors and struck out on his own.

Tesla soon had several patents for AC technologies, several of which he licensed to Edison’s former partner, George Westinghouse, and the War of the Currents was on. It was a nasty public battle filled with misinformation and personal invective. In an effort to “prove” that AC current was far too dangerous to unleash on the American public, Edison inadvertently invented the electric chair. In what may be considered a bit of macabre foreshadowing for our current difficulties and controversies over executions and the death penalty, the first use of the electric chair for an execution in 1890 went very poorly and several cycles were needed. George Westinghouse quipped “It would have been better done with an axe.”

Despite his valiant efforts, Edison was doomed to lose this battle before it started. Physics was against him. For reasons of which I will spare you the explanation, when you transmit direct current over any reasonable distance, much of the electricity is lost. Let me give you an example from personal experience. I have written previously about the solar power system that I built at my farm, which uses a single 220 Watt solar panel and four batteries. Approximately two feet away from the panel, I have a refrigerator which I use to store chicken eggs, vegetables and cold beer. It runs like a charm. About 150 feet from the solar power station is my tool shed. I ran a heavy gauge wire over to the shed – the thicker the wire the less the electricity loss – and I can just barely run a radio, a device that needs far less power than a refrigerator.

The beauty of AC current is that it can be transmitted over long distances with limited loss. This technical advantage explains why Tesla won the War of the Currents despite Edison’s head start and considerable fame. It is also the primary reason that electricity generation and distribution in the United States came to rely upon a relatively small number of very large power plants which deliver electricity over great distances.

The issues which impacted the War of the Currents are the same ones which determine the viability of solar roads. We could certainly cover the highways of sunny places in the U.S. such as New Mexico and Arizona in solar panels and generate quite a bit of DC electricity. However, given that highways are generally far away from homes and businesses, trying to transmit power from the roads to where it is needed would waste nearly all of it. One could consider using streets in cities and towns, but as you can see from my example from my farm, even the short distance from the street to your house would result in a noteworthy loss of power.

A far better place to install solar panels is where we generally already do install them: on roofs, which is as close as possible to lights, TVs, and appliances. Furthermore, rooftop solar panels are getting so efficient now that they are beginning to compete with your local electric company on a cost per kilowatt hour basis.

Sadly, I think the brief flurry of interest in solar roads actually hurt the alternative energy movement. Getting everyone’s hopes up on an unrealistic project and then letting them down creates negative feelings. In the end, as is often the case, the best approach is not always the sexy one. Rooftop solar panels are a key feature in helping us to become less dependent on fossil fuels, and we should just keep making steady progress in installing them.

Have a comment or question? Use the interface below or send me an email to commonscience@chapelboro.com. Think that this column includes important points that others should consider? Send out a link on Facebook or Twitter. Want more Common Science? Follow me on Twitter at @Commonscience.


Quick Hits Around Washington

Washington, DC

– Former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, didn’t take long to cause a commotion once out of office. Her office released hillaryclintonoffice.com causing rumors predicting a 2016 run to gain further traction. The new site, launched January 30th, is undergoing further development, though it is worth noting that hillaryclinton.com now forwards to this new URL.

– New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has been making the media rounds this week, appearing on David Letterman’s The Tonight Show on Monday night, drawing praise from the notoriously liberal, Letterman, for his wonderful work in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Christie, who has been critical of his own party’s leadership, has recently become a very vocal voice for bi-partisanship and is now an overwhelming favorite to be re-elected to the same office in 2013. When asked if he would run for President in 2016, Christie said that when he last polled his family, it was 6 votes to none for NOT running. He plans to re-evaluate their stance moving forward.

– The Wall Street Journal published an article on Kansas Governor, Sam Brownback, and his “Red-State Model” that he hopes will generate momentum for the party in future years. With the stable of appealing candidates is in short supply, Brownback hopes that his state’s success of slashing the budget (and taxes), weaning people off entitlements and the ensuing strong jobs record will move people to the economic right. Meanwhile, states like North Carolina are likely headed in a similar policy direction, according to Brownback.

– Barack Obama continues his dual-threat ground game this week in Minneapolis (on Monday) as he pushes for greater gun control measures. Obama was in Nevada last week to launch his immigration reform push. Both issues are hot topics in North Carolina. 41.3% of North Carolina households self-reported having a gun in 2012, while 25% of NC’s population growth in the last 20 years can be attributed to Latinos (according to the NC Governor’s office).

Have a question about what’s going on in Washington? Let us know.


Ryan Watts is a Chapel Hill native and recent UNC graduate in Political Science and Business Administration. Now living in Washington DC, he works as a Consultant. You can find him on Twitter @RyanVWatts or at his blog.

image by paul-w via flickr


What to Watch For in Obama's Second Term

Washington, DC

An estimated 900,000 people showed up to the area surrounding the National Mall, Capitol Building and Pennsylvania Avenue to watch President Barack Obama take his public oath of office on Monday.

Per Constitutional rules requiring the new President to be sworn in on January 20th, Obama took his official oath on Sunday in the Oval Office. Several key Congressional players were also invited to partake in the ceremony. Sources have indicated that Mr. Obama took the opportunity to reset the playing field for his new term by “starting fresh.”

What’s on the docket for Obama’s second term? What should North Carolinians be on the watch for the next four years?

1. Gun Control

Following the tragic events in Aurora, Colorado & Newtown, the calling for greater gun control measures has escalated across the country. Unfortunately, like most things in politics, there is far from a consensus. Following rumors of greater gun control measures, the NRA saw a huge spike in membership, averaging 8,000 new members a day since the Newtown tragedy.

While gun control is a microcosm of the political division in America, there does seem to be a consensus that America’s problems in this regard are bigger than guns and point to a larger cultural issue. Obama’s recent proposals relating to the topic seem to want to address the broader crisis, including studying the role of the media in violence.

North Carolina will continue to be an indicator of the nation’s thought process moving forward. As a traditionally Southern and diverse swing state, the blend of ideology in North Carolina will result in a struggle for control in the debate, and will likely serve as an indicator of the overall sentiment of the nation. It is unlikely that the Republican controlled State legislature will make significant changes like New York enacted last week, and thus, any anti-gun advocates will have to look to Washington for changes in NC.

Lastly, it will be worth eyeing how Obama’s administration navigates the issues it will be sure to face with the Supreme Court in passing any gun legislation as it pertains to the 2nd Amendment. Obama and the nine justices have not seen completely eye-to-eye since Obama was first inaugurated in 2009.

2. Addressing ‘Failure’ From the First Term

Americans have been highly critical of Obama’s first term. Policy Mic released an article on Monday discussing the outlook to address Obama’s failures in his first term. While Obamacare passed under duress, there were more misses than ‘makes’ and the administration has acknowledged its shortcomings. “Change” and “Forward” have been the go-to sayings for Obama and he will look to leave a more significant mark in term number two.

During his second inaugural speech, he noted that addressing climate change would be a priority, acknowledging that “the path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult.” And in a historical moment, Obama advocated for equal rights for “our gay brothers and sisters,” which was one of, if not the first time “gay” has been used by a President in a public address. Perhaps just as significant was the stage set for same-sex rights. Obama placed his comments regarding gay marriage directly adjacent to his comments on women’s rights and his equal pay for equal work initiatives. Analysts suggested that it was a calculated move by the Obama camp to put the two on level footing, demonstrating the importance Obama places on gay rights. These two issues look to be two that Obama will add to the leftovers from his first term agenda.

North Carolina will be in the cross-hairs of both topics in addition to many others. RTP’s prowess in the sciences field could see increased government dollars for research and development towards alternative energy. And the passing of Amendment One will stand in stark contrast to Obama’s desire to level the playing field for all genders, races and orientations.

3. The American Debt Ceiling

Last but certainly not least is the looming debt ceiling and exponentially growing national debt. Organizations like The Can Kicks Back are organizing to raise awareness about the consequences of the growing debt issue. The U.S. government spends almost 7 million dollars per minute per CBS news, a number that far surpasses any historical record high.

As leaders in Washington suggest temporarily raising the debt ceiling so as to avoid short-term economic catastrophe, a longer term plan must be developed that is generationally balanced to cut the deficit and, in turn, the debt. In the coming decades, interest payments on the debt will grow to over 50% of the federal budget, with debt exceeding 100% of annual GDP without significant action.

The government has kicked the can down the road for far too long and has shown little regard for controlling spending. With the temporary fiscal cliff ‘fix’ in December of 2012 to raise revenues, it will now be time to slice spending.

Long-term, this is an issue of immense importance and must be dealt with. The success or failure of Obama as a President from a historical perspective could be dependent on how he deals with this issue.

With Inauguration Weekend winding to a close, the 113th Congress will be sworn in and the approaching debt ceiling will come back into focus. Obama will have to hit the ground running to ensure the economic recovery remains on track and address his broad agenda.

Ryan Watts is a Chapel Hill native and recent UNC graduate in Political Science and Business Administration. Now living in Washington DC, he works as a Consultant. You can find him on Twitter @RyanVWatts or at his blog.

image by paul-w via flickr


2 Simple Ways to Make This the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Washington, DC has some of the worst traffic in the nation. It is not uncommon to wait for the same light to turn from red, to green, to yellow, and back to red, without moving an inch. This paired with the fact that people in Washington like to have holiday parties in downtown DC makes for a lot of character building car rides during the holiday season. One holiday my husband and I were on our way to a holiday party and thus sitting in traffic. During the time it took to move from one block to another I had the opportunity to thoroughly study the people in the cars around us. On one side of us was a fancy Mercedes. The woman was wearing a fur coat, fancy gown, and jewels and the man was dressed in a tux. He was even more interesting to observe because he was screaming at the traffic which was – going nowhere. The woman looked both stressed and miserable and I understood why since my blood pressure went up just watching the man next to her. In the car next to us on the other side was a family joyfully singing Christmas carols; clearly tourists. I don’t remember much about them except that they looked happy even though they were just as stuck in traffic as the rest of us.

The contrast between these two family’s experiences is something I think about often during this time of year because the holidays have the unique ability to bring out the joy and Grinch in all of us. It was then I realized what control I had over my inner experience so I decided to find ways to maximize the happiness because – well, why not? Here are the two things I do to keep my attitude positive during the holidays and if you want – give them a try.

1. Each I night remind myself that I am in control of my inner experience. Then I think about things that have the power to derail my inner peace. Here they are in no particular order: 1. screaming kids 2. obnoxious people 3. long lines 4. indecisive people trying to make plans 5. being late 6. not being able to find something I need like the keys 7. traffic 8. money. In my life 1+3+5+6+7 usually combine to cause the stress-o-meter to spike into the red zone. Then I feel and picture myself remaining calm. When I wake up in the morning I do the same exercise lest I forget my planned reaction in the thick of things which has been known to happen. Again I remind myself, “I am in control of my inner experience.”

When I start my day, I know that I will be tested at every turn. In my head I hear the theme song from Mission Impossible so dealing with the stressors becomes almost like a fun game. “What new thing can the universe throw at me to derail my inner peace?” I will admit it has come up with some good ones including the time when my youngest child, a mere 6 month old, batted my piping hot coffee onto the man in front of me in line at the airport and soaked his suit. (The guy was super nice when he figured what happened and that helped me maintain my inner peace immensely!) Or when my older child, a mere three at the time, did her own holiday decorations on a friend’s wall and carpet with a black Sharpie. It is moments like these when “I’m terribly sorry” just does not seem to be enough and the internal voice gets a wee bit louder and more persistent in reminding me that “I AM IN CONTROL of my inner experience.”

2. When I feel my blood pressure going up, I look for things to be grateful for in my life. I often start with the big things such as living in a country where we have the ability to celebrate the holidays regardless of our beliefs. My beliefs come from the Christian tradition so there are many reasons to celebrate this time of the year as well. I’ll then start on more personal things like the fact that I’m grateful for my family, a job I enjoy, and a roof over my head. Finally, if I still need to keep my attitude in check, I’ll start silently thanking any thing I can think of; I find my internal music usually shifts to The Sound of Music’s “My Favorite Things”. I thank God, the planet, the troops, Christmas Carolers, cushioned shoe inventors, hot coffee makers, magazines, the sky for not snowing, etc… and yes, this all has the potential to happen when I’m standing in line at Walmart.

From the very beginning, the holiday’s were a time of celebration, giving, and hope. We all have the potential to harmonize our own attitudes with these founding intentions and to make this the most wonderful time of the year. I’ve found these two strategies do an amazing job of shifting my mood and keeping me in the Christmas spirit. I’d love to know what works for you!