30th September 2020

Solar-powered HGV trailers

Finding ways to cut costs and reduce emissions levels will always appeal to fleet managers, but are you ready to adopt solar technology into your business? In recent years there have been ground-breaking developments in roof-mounted solar panels, and this article will investigate the pros and cons of solar-powered HGV trailers - so you can decide whether solar is right for you.

Traditional HGV electricity

Electrical devices in modern trucks eat up a lot of power. Electricity is generated by the vehicle's alternator, but this is a wasteful and expensive process and the issue is exacerbated when the engine is idling. Idling your engine to produce electricity is very inefficient ‑ burning fuel and adding to air pollution.

Electric power also puts a lot of strain on HGV batteries, leading to lasting damage and shorter lifespans. Flat batteries are bad for business as roadside assistance can delay delivery times and replacements can be expensive.

Solar technology was developed to deal with this issue and power trucks with cleaner electricity. Increasingly warmer summers lend themselves perfectly to this idea.

Is solar power worth it?

Reported fuel savings of over five per cent, reductions in carbon dioxide and cheaper maintenance costs, means solar power is gaining a lot of haulage industry attention.

In 2018, logistic giants, DHL launched a trial to power HGVs electrical devices via sunlight. By drawing energy from roof-mounted solar panels, the DHL trucks could power the air conditioning, windows, radio, tail-lift and even the engine.

The experiment proved so successful that DHL set up, Trailar as part of DHL's target of zero emissions by 2050. This included rolling out solar solutions to more of their fleet and eventually third-party businesses.

The founders of Trailar suggest that by turning to solar-powered batteries, four tonnes of CO2 could be taken out of the atmosphere ‑ a massive positive for reducing emissions levels. They also claim that users will get a return on their investment within a year or two, dependent on the usage.

How many solar panels do I need to run a trailer?

By adding just one truck roof solar panel, it can generate enough power to support the running of battery-operated, hotel loads in the cab such as TVs, microwave ovens, phone chargers and portable fridges. This alleviates battery pressure and lengthens the lifespan.

In the United States, Shell collaborated to create, Starship, which they describe as, "an innovative, material step towards reducing emissions and increasing overall efficiency and fuel economy in the transport sector." This state-of-the-art truck features 15, 5,000-watt solar panels which cover the entire roof of its trailer (25 metres long and 2.6 metres wide).

What can HGV solar power be used for?

The biggest electrical taxation in an HGV is used to start the engine. Solar panels can ease some of this stress.

According to the Energy and Climate Change Division at the University of Southampton, the world's first solar-powered refrigeration unit installed on a working articulated HGV was developed by the Sustainable Energy Research Group for Sainsbury's Supermarkets.

Roof-mounted photovoltaic panels were first used to generate power for a refrigeration trailer in 1997 and an on-board battery was able to store excess power when the sun was down. This presented a sustainable alternative to thirsty diesel-powered generators.

Thermo King states their 110w, ThermoLite solar panel range can supply a sustainable power solution for modern truck reefer or refrigeration units. Even in low light, the solar panels collect energy to keep the fridge unit's battery charged and ease the engine's need to recharge. Thermo King claims that their new panels will reduce fuel consumption by up to 23 per cent and CO2 emissions by 560kg.

Installing a solar-powered trailer

Fitting the flexible solar panel film system to the roof of an HGV trailer usually takes up to six hours. Once the solar-powered trailer is operational, maintenance is virtually zero. The only thing you'll need to worry about is cleaning the panels. Trailar suggests that solar technology should be problem-free for the life of the vehicle.

What will a solar future look like in the haulage industry?

The founders of Trailar suggest that solar-powered HGV trailers could potentially be used as mobile power stations within five to 10 years. They say it's possible to pump the energy generated from roof-mounted panels back into the grid.

Rick Mihelic of Mihelic Vehicle Consulting also supports the idea of turning trailers into electric truck charging units. Mihelic's idea is to cover warehouse roofs with solar panels and transfer the generated energy to batteries integrated within HGV trailers in the yard. This will give trucks an energy source when connected to a charged trailer, although, he admits this particular solar-powered truck innovation is not yet ready for commercial use.

Other things to consider

Haulage industry experts have stressed the importance of replacing trucks with cleaner and quieter alternatives, but the North American Council for Freight Efficiency (NACFE) says that fleets should only consider solar technology if they are experiencing challenges that solar can solve. Perfect examples are battery HVAC systems not being able to run for an entire rest period or having to idle the engine to operate a tail-lift.

Fleets should also think about the time of day their trucks are usually on the roads. Solar panels will be noticeably less effective if your drivers are working through the night.

There is no doubting the benefits of solar panels for trucks, but NACFE stresses that solar is designed to enhance the electricity supplied by the truck's alternator to its batteries - not to replace it. They also explain that fleets should be aware that an HGV trailer with solar panels is not yet capable of powering an electric truck on its own.

But with pioneering developments in solar technology, it might not be long before your fleet is reaping the benefits of solar-powered HGV trailers.

Josh Cousens | SNAP.

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