– The Associated Press

SAGLE, Idaho – A northern Idaho company that aims to transform U.S. highways into a vast energy-producing network is getting $750,000 from the federal government for the next phase of its project: A solar parking lot capable of sending electricity back to the power grid.

Solar Roadways, of Sagle, announced last Wednesday it won a Small Business Innovation Research grant for its project from the Federal Highway Administration.

Company founders Scott and Julie Brusaw plan to use the cash to create a prototype parking lot for testing. But their real dream is for a road system built of 12-foot-by-12-foot solar panels rather than traditional asphalt.

Brusaw estimates the panels might cost three times more than asphalt but would produce electricity that could be sent back to the power grid, helping governments and private industry pay for them. He’s hoping his work helps convince otherwise conservative, risk-averse road construction agencies that his panels are suitable for a rollout on an estimated 28,000 square miles of asphalt and concrete across the nation that get enough sun to produce electricity.

“It’s a perfect time to do this, because our highway infrastructure is falling apart and our power infrastructure is falling is apart,” Scott Brusaw told The Associated Press. “Both of them need to be rebuilt. This is a project that combines those two.”

Steve Albert, the director of the Western Transportation Institute at Montana State University in Bozeman, said he’s familiar with Brusaw’s work and is excited by its potential, but cautioned that highway and construction engineers are naturally risk-averse when adopting new materials that differ radically from tried-and-true asphalt.

“The big issue is, local, state and federal organizations involved in transportation are very slow to change,” Albert said.

The company’s structurally engineered panels, encased in sturdy, break-proof glass and connected by underground wires, include LED lights for road markers as well as heating elements. That’s so they wouldn’t be subject to damaging freeze and thaw cycles and water penetration that leave traditional asphalt roads and concrete sidewalks cracked, potholed and broken, Brusaw said.

He estimates that one mile of solar roadway could eventually power as many as 500 homes.

The panels, which would include an embedded microprocessor for real-time control and communication with those controlling the power grid, would be designed to last at least 20 years.

“And at the end of that 20 years, you don’t throw it away, you refurbish it,” Brusaw said.