The potential and challenges of solar-powered transportation

Power efficiency

Over the past decade, solar-powered transportation has undergone major developments, thanks in part to technological advances that have provided the necessary tools to forge projects that were previously unfeasible. The attention that designers and engineers have given to this field has resulted in futuristic vehicles that, although still far from large-scale production, help to better understand the potential of photovoltaics as applied to mobility. In the current historical context, the many benefits that are highlighted –particularly environmental and economical – become even more relevant in view of the EU’s constraints on emissions.

Information and sources updated as of June 2023

What is solar-powered transportation?

Solar-powered transportation includes all vehicles that use the sun’s energy as their main propulsion.

One example is Solar Impulse, the first fully photovoltaic-powered aircraft that, back in 2016, managed to complete a full circumnavigation of the Earth.

This feat was a success due to 17,248 solar cells fitted on the wings, fuselage and tailplane for a total area of 269.5 m² and a rated power of 66 kWp. (1)

Then there is Energy Observer – the first vessel powered entirely by a mix of renewable sources – also bringing photovoltaics to the forefront due to the preponderant role played on board. The more than 34 kWp of solar panels fitted on the catamaran make a significant contribution to generating enough energy to produce the hydrogen that powers the vessel. A veritable laboratory on water, Energy Observer has been engaged in a zero-emission world tour since 2017 to demonstrate the real effectiveness of renewables in freeing us from fossil fuels.

Such efficiency is also becoming increasingly evident in the automotive sector. 

In recent years, solar vehicles have aroused the curiosity and interest of many designers who have taken part in dedicated and high-profile competitions such as the World Solar Challenge, a race that takes place every two years in Australia, traveling from Darwin to Adelaide in various prototypes built by teams from all over the world.

One such prototype is Sunswift 7, a vehicle designed and built by students at the University of New South Wales which, just a few months ago, took out a major new record (recognized by the Guinness World Record) as the first solar vehicle to travel 1,000 km in under 12 hours on a single charge. (2)

While solar-only mobility will still take time to be introduced on a large scale, photovoltaics as an additional support and aid in extending the range of electric vehicles and the life of batteries is an already viable and highly effective solution for reducing costs.

If we think about road freight transport, integrating photovoltaic panels onto vehicles can help meet various needs, from larger installations such as those covering the roofs of trailers to power refrigeration units, to smaller units applied to a tractor's spoiler to keep the battery charged. In any case, the process is the same: panels that are connected to a battery and a charge controller, produce and enable “self-consuming” electricity with the dual benefit of saving fuel and extending battery life. Ultimately, this leads to reduced environmental pollution and lower expenses, meaning trucking becomes more sustainable and competitive.

Flexible photovoltaic panels (with those produced by Solbian being less than 2 millimeters thick and weighing about 2.5 kilograms per square meter) are utilized in solar-powered vehicles, being more resistant to mechanical stress and even much lighter and slimmer than traditional glass panels, so that they do not alter the aerodynamics of vehicles while complying with the maximum allowable vehicle heights.

The workings of a photovoltaic panel, as previously described, are quite intuitive. Still, there are many factors to consider when designing, sizing, and installing the solar system. The type of vehicle, intended use, and routes taken can lead to drastically different solutions, meaning technical advice is always necessary in order to fully understand the needs of each vehicle and to devise the most suitable solution.

The regulatory framework

And if the environmental and economic benefits were not enough of an incentive to opt for solar-powered transportation, the European Union has taken steps to up the appeal. By setting binding targets on CO2 emissions, the EU has clearly paved the way forward to curb environmental pollution in the coming decades.

When it comes to mobility, electrification is now the most viable solution for meeting the objectives set in 2015 by the Paris Agreement, which calls for keeping the global average temperature increase by 2050 well below 2° C (with 1.5° C being the ideal target) compared with pre-industrial levels. (3)

Regarding heavy vehicles, the European Union has developed a dedicated mechanism in the form of super credits for the reporting periods from 2019 to 2024 and a benchmark-based crediting system for the share of zero- (ZEV) and low-emission (LEV) heavy-duty vehicles in a manufacturer’s fleet from 2025 onwards, with a benchmark set at 2%. (4)

Again, with a view to reducing environmental impact, the EU has also set CO2 emission performance levels for heavy-duty vehicles through Regulation 2019/1242 (5), offering up additional revisions presented on February 4 (6) to tighten the targets set from 2030 onward. If approved, the reductions in CO2 would go from 30% to 45% for 2030, 65% for 2035 and 90% for 2040. 

Manufacturers would need to comply with these requirements to avoid financial penalties (in the form of an excess CO2 emissions premium). Flexible solar panels can play a crucial role in meeting these requirements, as they contribute significantly to addressing the challenges faced by modern trucking in terms of optimizing consumption for sustainability and competitiveness.

“Putting photovoltaic systems on the trucks is too expensive!” This is simply not true.

The most classic objection in our industry is that the technology is too expensive.

This is no longer the case.

As difficult as it is to say how much a solar energy system costs without first completing a specific assessment, what is true is that photovoltaic technology has never been more affordable than it is today. Prices vary on a case-by-case basis, depending on the level of customization and the configuration of the entire system, including the electronic component that affects the total. Still, we can make estimates. In fact, we calculated an ROI of about 4 years. 

Since the installations are all custom, we have created a configuration system to give you an idea of the investment.

Click below to use the configurator, without any commitment.


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  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_Impulse#Specifications_2
  2. https://newsroom.unsw.edu.au/news/science-tech/ev-record-breakers-sunswift-7-goes-1000km-single-charge-world%E2%80%99s-best-time
  3.  Paris Agreement
  4. https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/IT/LSU/?uri=CELEX:32019R1242
  5. https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/IT/TXT/HTML/?uri=CELEX:32019R1242&from=EN
  6. https://climate.ec.europa.eu/eu-action/transport-emissions/road-transport-reducing-co2-emissions-vehicles/reducing-co2-emissions-heavy-duty-vehicles_it

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