The 3 advantages of solar panels on trailers

Solar trailers

The move towards a low-emission industrial future brings the issue of photovoltaics integrated into heavy transport vehicles to the forefront. Indeed, the installation of solar panels on trucks and trailers is playing a key role in this transition over the coming years. 

The topic is of great interest to manufacturers and fleet owners who will have to adapt to the restrictions imposed by an increasing number of countries around the world in curbing emissions and pollution.

There is no lack of studies, experiments and think tanks dedicated to the subject, as demonstrated by the International Energy Agency (IEA) that has set up a specific working group, “Task 17”, within the Photovoltaic Power Systems (PVPS) Program to study the contributions that photovoltaic technologies can make to transport and the potential market for such applications. 

The use of solar power on semi-trailer trucks is amongst the most promising scenarios analyzed by Task 17, with the ultimate goal being to develop innovative solutions to boost the energy efficiency of vehicles and cut greenhouse gas emissions.

To this end, the use of solar panels on trailers responds to these needs in a timely manner, leading to a number of advantages for the transport sector. 

Let’s take a look at the main ones...

1 - Objective for zero emissions

The use of solar panels on trailers can be a very important step towards achieving zero emissions in road transport, according to United Natural Foods, Inc. (UNFI) (1)), one of the best-known food retailers in the United States, which just over a year ago announced that it is ready to introduce 53 all-electric Transport Refrigeration Units (TRUs) into its fleet, powered by a system consisting of roof mounted solar photovoltaic panels, a wheel-momentum generator, lithium-ion batteries, and a unique auxiliary power unit.

Calculating that almost 50% of the company’s CO2 emissions comes from trucks and trailers, the investment in renewable technologies is an important first step towards achieving zero emissions by 2029, in line with the proposed California Air Resources Board (CARB) requirements (2).

2 - Energy savings generating economic savings

Installing solar panels on trailers not only contributes to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions but is also a valuable tool for transport companies in keeping fuel costs down. A vehicle that consumes less inevitably translates into significant cost savings. 

Again with reference to the example cited above, United Natural Foods, Inc. estimates that it will save more than 500,000 liters of diesel per year by retrofitting its fleet, yet earlier studies already showed encouraging prospects in this regard. In 2017, the German Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE (3), together with the logistics company DACHSER and the transport company Benzinger, carried out a significant experiment on six 40-ton refrigerated semi-trailers by equipping them with irradiance sensors. Data collected on standard routes in the US and Europe were subsequently analyzed in detail. 

The results?

Based on the outcomes of the tests, the institute calculated that the electricity produced by the solar panels on the trailers could lead to annual savings of up to 1,900 liters of diesel per vehicle

These numbers cannot be defined as absolute since they depend on the size of the vehicles, the routes travelled, the number of panels installed and their power, yet they sure are useful in understanding how convenient it is to install solar panels on trailers today. 

3 - Cost savings on electrical components

Using solar panels means smart management of on-board devices, starting with the battery (the most expensive component of the electrical system) which, thanks to photovoltaic support, is no longer subjected to voltage fluctuations or deep discharges. This not only leads to a better overall functionality of the truck, but also to a longer service life of the battery itself.

With a longer battery life, the associated replacement costs are spread out over a longer period and consequently the vehicle’s operating costs also become cheaper over time.

In conclusion, there is no doubt that the use of solar panels on semi-trailers offers environmental, economic and energy benefits, contributing to a transition towards a low-emission future and a greater use of renewable energy sources in the transport sector.

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  1. https://ir.unfi.com/news/press-release-details/2021/UNFI-Adopts-Emerging-Transportation-Technology-to-Reduce-Emissions/default.aspx
  2. https://ww2.arb.ca.gov/news/carb-approves-new-requirements-further-reduce-air-pollution-transport-refrigeration-units-and
  3. https://www.ise.fraunhofer.de/en/press-media/press-releases/2017/research-at-fraunhofer-ise-investigates-integrated-photovoltaic-modules-for-commercial-vehicles.html

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