Solar power has evolved from benefiting households to now powering commercial vehicles on the move. With easy access to direct sunlight and a large surface area, it is logical that this is the next way to use solar panels. The energy collected can be used to supplement power to the HVAC systems and hotel loads to eliminate the need for additional batteries.
In recent years, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) have enacted greenhouse gas emissions regulations on commercial vehicles which extend to 2030. The regulations require manufacturers to develop and sell technologies to improve efficiencies.
Not to confuse these solar panels with the traditional thick ones utilized on home rooftops. Truck solar panels are thin, flexible, and lightweight. The truck panels are specifically designed to be on top of a moving automobile and are resistant to mother nature. The solar power is useful for supplying energy to parts of the vehicle that normally would be powered by the battery. “Solar panels can extend the runtime of battery HVAC systems not only to help the HVAC system make it through the night without draining the truck’s batteries, but also to reduce the load on the alternator the next morning resulting in fuel savings” reads the NACFE Confidence Report: Solar for Trucks and Trailers.
The batteries inside of large, heavy-duty trucks are constantly running, and fleet owners are faced with the expenditure of replacement battery bills on a regular basis. This is one of the cost-saving measures that has been evaluated for operating the trucks. According to the Confidence Report on Solar for Trucks, “considerations also include cost savings due to reduced idling, less load on the alternator during normal tractor–trailer operation, increased battery life, and avoidance of emergency roadside assistance.”
Trucks are typically not permitted to idle, although they most often need to while loading and unloading deliveries with the liftgate. Cities, such as New York, give out thousands of dollars in idling tickets in a week alone. Fleet owners get hit the worst with these tickets having to pay continuous fines for a situation they cannot control. In addition to being fined for it, the constant idling wears on the battery, putting an average of seven miles on the truck for every hour spent with the truck running.
Using solar panels on trucks would be helpful to save on fuel costs, but as of right now the technology is not fully in place. Manufacturers say that the surface combined with the weight of heavy-duty trucks makes it somewhat of a challenge to harness enough energy to power the engine. However, fuel efficiency is an important issue that should not be dismissed. With the average eight-wheeler truck getting 6.4 miles per gas and traveling about 100,000 miles a year, solar panels could help account for thousands of dollars in savings.
According to eNow, a builder of solar panels in Warwick, Rhode Island, there are six benefits to using solar panels on trucks. They are:
Increased run time
Increased battery life
Reduced downtime and maintenance
Reduced spoilage of perishable products
Improved customer satisfaction
In a test by eNow, they proved they could cut harmful diesel emissions on a refrigerated truck trailer by almost 100%. Solar panels can help to build power systems for big-rig air conditioning, lift gates for straight and semi-truck trailers, provide safety lighting for emergency vehicles, and telematics systems that require an energy source to ensure batteries are always charged.
The NACFE report calculated a payback scenario for a solar panel installation on top of a tractor to support a battery HVAC system. The cost and installation were $2,500 and the payback was about three years. Return on investment is key for the trucking industry, and the potential of a truck being taken out with solar panels would mean a huge loss in their investment.
Mike Roeth, the executive director of The North American Council of Freight, said “the “slam-dunk” applications for solar, are maintaining the batteries on liftgates, refrigerated trailer diesel power units and trailer telematics systems that relay GPS, temperature and other data to the fleet…The battery savings and the benefits to the drivers generally make solar something fleets should be considering.”
There are many benefits utilizing solar panels on trucks, however, the energy “is used very little right now,” said Antti Lindstrom, an analyst with IHS Markit. “I don’t really see much growth there because trucks operate in so many different environments and many are not that constantly exposed to sunlight.” This affects the decision to invest in solar energy for fleets.
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