A small-town engineer and his wife have raised more than $2 million through the online crowdfunding website Indiegogo to produce solar paving tiles.
Some Thunder Bay experts say their idea shows promise.
Corey Bolton of Thunder Bay’s Solar Logix said the basic technology has been "road tested,” but more research is needed to ensure the road can be driven upon.
"If it works, I think it would probably be 10-12 years before we ever saw anything like this in Canada,” he said.
“And in Thunder Bay? Unfortunately I'd probably have to put us another five to eight years behind anywhere else."
City engineer Pat Mauro said he's intrigued, but noted there are still lots of questions to be answered — like how will solar roads handle a Thunder Bay winter?
“The pavements move considerably and the depth of frost penetration on our road system would have a significant impact on these panels,” he said.
In theory, it's 'absolutely' possible
According to the campaign video on the Indiegogo website, the hexagonal, solar paving tiles were developed by an Idaho couple named Scott and Julie Brusaw. The couple built their initial prototypes using funding from the United States' Federal Highway Administration.
The tiles are said to contain heating elements that will melt snow on contact, eliminating the need for snow-clearing. They also contain light-emitting diodes that the couple says could be programmed to display lane boundaries, cross-walks and other traffic markings.
Bolton, who is the operations manager and sales manager for Solar Logix, said the idea is “not too good to be true,” in theory.
“It's exactly what people have been [saying] for the last 50 years here in the transformation of solar in the renewable energy field,” he said.
“Right now it's a lot of testing and a lot of information that still has to be gathered. But in theory, it's absolutely possible."
Critics of the technology have posted articles online saying it makes no sense to put a delicate technology like solar into a harsh environment like a road.
As an alternative, some people propose building solar canopies over roadways and parking lots to generate power and protect roads from snow, without putting the solar panels in danger.
"Those are all good suggestions, and we're actually already doing that," Bolton said.
"At the end of the day, you've still got all your road maintenance … These things do have a much longer life span than typical asphalt."
Holding up to a Thunder Bay winter
Other critics have suggested the roads would become too dirty or scuffed to absorb sunlight, and that the LEDs may not be visible in daylight.
Bolton conceded there are still plenty of questions still to be answered, such as how the roadway's snow-melting capabilities would hold up in a Thunder Bay winter.
"We were told, 'don't worry about your solar panels. The snow will melt right off.' It's not the case when you live up here,” he said.
“The majority of the year I don't see a huge issue with it, but we get those two-three-four weeks a year where we get the -35 C, -40 C, and -45 C temperatures. If [the panels] are not keeping up with melting, what they're making is ice, which sounds a little dangerous."
Bolton said it would make sense to test the paving tiles on the through-ways of shopping malls and parking lots before using them on main roads and highways.
Mauro said he'd want to see a successful pilot project on provincial roads before considering the technology for Thunder Bay.
The Solar Roadways fundraising campaign ends Friday. About 16 million views have been logged by the website.