Sunday, July 6, 2014

The solar road

In Minnesota, we only have two seasons—winter and road repair
perhaps the most common complaint of the locals

Here in Minnesota, road maintenance is one of the more expensive line items of many government units such as counties.  Our climate seems designed to destroy roads.  The nastiest problem is caused by freeze-thaw.  When spring brings warmer temperatures, the snow starts melting during the day.  Water runs into any tiny crack in the road surface.  As night-time temperatures fall below freezing, that water turns into ice.  Ice is larger than water so by morning, a tiny crack isn't so tiny anymore.  A few consecutive days of free-thaw and a paved surface begins to crumble.  Suddenly there are huge potholes everywhere.  While freeze-thaw is especially damaging to asphalt surfaces, it can also wreck roads and bridges made of reinforced concrete.

Because road maintenance is so expensive, time consuming, and critically important, there has been massive amounts of research over the years of how to cost-effectively keep roads smooth, safe and open.  The most sophisticated efforts involve the Germans and their precious autobahns.  Because the public demands it, there are stretches of these roads that have no speed limits.  When speeds reach 200+ kilometers per hour (122+ mph), even small potholes can cause a serious crash.  So the Germans actually try to maintain zero-pothole roads.  Not surprisingly, this is extremely expensive.  In areas that have major maintenance problems combined with shrinking public budgets like Michigan, potholes get so large they can take out suspension elements of a car or truck.  So serious people with serious educations spend serious money to make improvements on the art of highway maintenance.

The reason I bring up this very obvious topic is that somehow, it has become politically correct in lefty circles to support a technological experiment that would introduce SOLAR CELLS as a paving material.  Apparently, road maintenance headaches aren't difficult enough.  Supposedly, asphalt and concrete aren't expensive enough so the new paving surface should be GLASS. Keeping that glass clean should be a snap even though hundreds of cars an hour pass over the surface, say people who have never washed a window in their lives.

What could be...
courtesy of Photoshop
So when a frontpager over at Firedoglake wrote about the virtues of Solar Roads, I was shocked but tried not to make too much fun of her enthusiasm.  But as I read the comments, it became quite apparent that there are folks who are treating this idea seriously.  I don't comment much anymore because I use up that energy writing this blog.  But against my better judgement, I posted the following:
I hesitate to respond to this because the idea of putting solar cells on the highway is so absurd, I smell a hoax.

Can anyone imagine the problems selling the idea of paving roads with glass?  This glass must be kept clean in order to transmit the solar energy and as everyone knows, there is nothing so easy to keep spotless as a road.

I have been watching roads deteriorate from the weather and the pounding of traffic my whole life.  Here in Minnesota, we actually had a bridge fall into the Mississippi.  And since solar cells actually generate electricity when they are working, can you imagine what would happen if anyone introduced road salt into that environment?  Since that would be a disaster, this means even the non-solar roads could not be salted because cars would carry salt from the regular roads to the solar ones.

And so on.  It is scams like this that will severely embarrass anyone who supports them.  Worse, this idea is so goofy, it will discredit the technologically illiterate left (the main left we have, unfortunately.)
Some prototype solar pavers
I got two different responses.  One guy told me I shouldn't be so sure that Solar Roads were a bad idea because the Catholic Church was wrong about Galileo.  Apparently understanding the issues surrounding road maintenance is the same as dismissing an idea because of a faulty interpretation of Aristotle or the Bible.

The other response suggested that since technological literacy led to GMOs and other evils, I was wrong to suggest that understanding how technology works is a good thing.  Ah yes, the worship of ignorance.  It didn't seem to occur to this person that since the suggestion of paving highways with solar cells was a technological project, it was no longer possible to discuss this subject without a basic technological literacy.

There is almost nothing quite so dangerous as a really bad idea that has somehow become politically correct.  And it's really bad when technologically illiterate people take it upon themselves to make technology policy.  The most extreme historical example took place during Mao Zedong's insane Great Leap Forward.  Among his more technologically illiterate programs were the community steel-making efforts.  Nothing like a rich kid with zero understanding of metallurgy setting industrial policy on steel production.

Paving roads with solar cells is easily as bad an idea as backyard steel mills and maybe even worse.  This idea is so bad it may all be a hoax.  One can almost imagine an evil villain stroking his Persian Cat and muttering, "Discovering supporters for Solar Roads is the perfect way to collect a list of hopelessly stupid people in case I need to start up the Soylent Green production.  Bwa-ha-ha-ha!"

I seriously doubt this project will ever get to the phase of the Great Leap Forward.  No one gets dictatorial powers like Mao anymore.  Unfortunately, people who got their ideas for the future from the Jetsons and Star Trek can still do a LOT of damage.  Any meaningful conversion to a green future simply must involve planning and governmental authority.  If we allow people to sidetrack meaningful action with obviously crackpot ideas, we're not going to make it.

Folks on the left tend to feel superior to the great unwashed tea-party, Fox-News-watching, creationist-young-earth crowd.  It would behoove these people to realize that anyone taken in by an idea that would put solar cells in a position where they would be regularly run over by trucks is in NO position to feel intellectually superior to anyone!

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