SANDPOINT — It was a tight time crunch, and Solar Roadways owners Scott and Julie Brusaw knew that. Yet, they knew people were eagerly anticipating their first pilot project and some had traveled from all over the country to be there in person as it went live Friday.
All 30 panels — the LEDs, heaters and solar cells — had been tested and worked.
What they hadn’t counted on was the lamination — the last step in the manufacturing process — taking so long. The process, which hermetically seals the panels so they are weatherproof, normally takes six hours and is done under extreme vacuum to remove all air bubbles.
Thursday, the Brusaws and the rest of the Solar Roadways team stayed up all night taping the panels for lamination, then loaded the oven and began the lamination process at 5 a.m. With a press conference set for 1 p.m. and the “big reveal” in the town square set for 3 p.m., the couple said they knew there was little chance of them making the deadline.
In hindsight, the couple told the Daily Bee that they would do things differently. Instead of setting a deadline and trying to rush the process to meet it, they will build the panels according to their established process, proven through a variety of tests. Then, and only then, would they would install them and hold any press conferences and celebrations to introduce the project to the public.
“We just wanted to please everyone,” Julie Brusaw said.
Part of the problem came when the Brusaws put the final panels into the oven, they noticed it was not reaching the correct temperature. Scott Brusaw called the oven’s sale representative, seeking advice. The rep told Solar Roadways he didn’t know what was causing the problem but began making calls. He found an oven owner in Alabama, who like the Brusaws, worked with thick glass; he explained that running a full load of such glass takes longer than normal.
“We assumed that was the problem and waited for the oven to complete its cycle,” Scott Brusaw told the Daily Bee.
It wasn’t until after the cycle, they learned what really had happened — one of the oven’s three heating elements and one of its blowers had shut off. That caused uneven heating and lengthened the heat cycle to 14 hours — more than twice the normal heating time. As a result, the panels were under high heat and extreme vacuum the entire time, Scott Brusaw said.
“When the panels were finally removed from the oven, many of the internal circuit boards had been pulled apart,” he said. “Many of the components were crushed, bent or broken. Of the 30 panels, less than half of them still had LED functionality and only five of those could still produce any power.”
Horrified, the Brusaws called city officials and invited them to their Pine Street manufacturing facility to see the problem. Together, the Brusaws and city officials decided to proceed with the installation with the understanding that Solar Roadways would begin ordering the materials to rebuild all 30 panels to install as soon as they could be manufactured.
Because so many people had traveled to the area to be a part of the company’s first pilot project and because they didn’t want to disappoint anyone, the Brusaws said they decided to install the panels for a “sneak preview” so everyone could get a sense of what the project would look like.
While Scott Brusaw was at the shop programming LEDs, crews were installing the panels on site. After returning to the town square, he realized more sand and compacting was necessary. Instead of making people wait or canceling the reveal, they opened the tent to give the crowd a sense of what the project would look like, and explained what was going on and what had happened.
After Saturday’s reveal, Solar Roadways crews pulled all the panels from the project site, and got to work. More sand was added and a compactor brought in to get the sand how it needed to be. The “dead pavers” were placed along the outside and damaged panels with LED functionality were placed in the center of the installation.
“We completed the installation at 5 a.m. Sunday morning,” Scott Brusaw said. “All the installation does at the moment is provide a light show. The solar cells and the heating elements are unusable in their current state.”
And, if folks look closely, they can see the damage to many of the panels’ circuit boards as well as the air bubbles caused by the oven problems.
The couple said they are chalking it all up to an expensive manufacturing lesson, adding they learned many things on what to do and what not to do in the future.
Solar Roadways had garnered some criticism on social media for the delays and questioning the project’s feasibility. Overall, however, the Brusaws said the vast majority of people have been understanding and supportive.
While the problems have been frustrating and disappointing, the couple said they are thankful and grateful for the support and confidence they’ve received in the past few days from the many people who came out to both events.
The Brusaws said they wanted to apologize for the setback and promised to make it right as soon as possible.
That’s something that’s already in the works, said Sandpoint City Administrator Jennifer Stapleton. Solar Roadways is already working on replacements and should have them done and installed sometime in early November.
Stapleton, who has received phone calls from all over the world about the project, said the city is looking forward to the full, working project, which will include Solar Roadways’ SR4 panels.
“I don’t think people realize how much attention this is attracting around the world,” Stapleton said.
A live stream on the city’s website showing the project has generated “off the charts” traffic, with people on the site all of the time.
With a free Wi-Fi zone and electric vehicle charging stations planned for the town square, the Solar Roadways project is leading the way in showcasing what’s happening in the area.
“It will be the central hub for showing the innovation that’s happening here in Sandpoint,” said Stapleton.