Creating The Ultimate Solar Trucking Rig

In my last post about the future of electric trucks, I went over a few different models including the Tesla semi and the Nikola One hydrogen truck. If you may have recalled, I expressed my concerns about the Tesla semi truck, mostly about it’s range capability. In this post, I’m going to help solve this problem, and it’s not going to apply just for Tesla’s semi, but for all future electric tractor trailers.

So to quickly recap what I said about the Tesla semi truck that was announced in November 2017, it can go either 300 or 500 miles depending which battery pack model you choose. For this example I’m going to use the 500 mile version. This version of the Tesla semi can recharge to 80% capacity (400 miles range) in 30 minutes with a supercharger. This could be an issue for truckers who mostly get paid for every mile they drive and will lose money every second that truck is not moving. So how do we change this?

My proposal for creating the ultimate solar trucking rig setup is pretty straightforward, and it’s an idea that I’ve been advocating for across the ToT blog: solar panels. But the tricky part is, the tractor trailer and the cab are 2 separate vehicles. This is because trucks will detach the trailer upon delivery and leave with a new trailer (or no trailer). Trailers get swapped out all the time. So it’s not like you can just throw up a bunch of solar panels on the roof of a tractor trailer and call it a day. Once that truck gets detached from the cab, all of the solar panels are gone. So what now?

The way it would have to work is this: Every trailer would have to be setup with solar panels, and every truck cab would have to be setup with the batteries and the ability to charge the solar panels. That way, when you swap the trailers out, you don’t lose out on solar power. The tractor trailer would have an attachment cable so it could connect to the cab and be able to charge the batteries or work in conjunction with the electric battery to save on battery.

How could solar panels charge the batteries while the truck is driving down the highway? Let’s bring up the Tesla semi again. That truck has 8 batteries in it, each with 100 kWh capacity. When the first battery is depleted, the solar panels would begin to charge that individual battery, while the rest of the batteries would continue to be used to power the truck. When that battery is charged (or whatever charge is regenerated via the solar panels if clouds exist or nighttime) it would be activated and available for reuse. Now if the battery doesn’t fully recharge, it can still use the energy if it’s the last remaining battery with a charge in it, so it would be a little better than a fully dead battery.

Let’s look at the solar panel setup to see what kind of power we could harness. The mounting structure is perfect, as the trailer is flat on the roof. We’ll use the standard 53′ trailer as an example with a width of 8′ 6″.  This gives us a total square footage area of 450.5 ft. That’s a lot of room to work with for a solar panel power setup. I’m going to use this solar panel from Home Depot as an example to put on the roof of the trailer. The solar panel is 180W and is 58.27 in long by 26.57 in wide according to the website. Since the truck is 102 inches wide, we can get 3 rows of solar panels on the roof (almost 4) of 10 solar panels each (almost 11). We could probably fit a few more panels on the roof, but for rounding sake, we’ll keep the total amount of panels at 30. That’s a lot of solar panels for one tractor trailer! And not to mention, you could fit a few on top of the cab, but let’s skip that for now.

The total potential power output would be 30 x 180W = 5,400W, or 5.4 kWh, but actually getting to 5.4 kWh would be impossible. The sun would have to be out entirely and hitting the solar panels at the perfect angle to generate the maximum amount of power, which in some parts of the country is much easier said than done. Even if the power output is 1 or 2 kWh, that could generate some power back into the batteries but would unlikely be able to come anywhere close to charging one of them.

Could this setup be improved? Absolutely. The solar panel example of what I use is commonly used on the roofs of an RV which the application to a truck would be similar. The first way to improve this is using a higher watt solar panel, followed by a more efficient solar panel. That alone would add more power to the rig, however like I said earlier in the example, not all space was being used for a solar panel. If you fill in the gaps on the trailer and on the cab, combined with the higher wattage and more efficient solar panel, this setup could reach as high as 7 kWh.

That’s one heck of a solar setup for an 18 wheel tractor trailer. But the benefits can extend to more than just driving. If a truck is parked for the night, it can use that power generated from the solar panels for overnight use. It could power electronics during stops while stopping at a truck stop. There’s a lot of different uses it could be used for and the solar’s flexibility should never be overlooked.

The further a truck can go on a battery charge, the better. It would help truck drivers significantly because it would keep them moving, and since they are paid by the mile, meaning they get their pay as they’re supposed to. While the cost of buying a Tesla semi or Nikola One is expensive, the long term gains from fuel savings would pay for the truck. Some diesel trucks carry 240 gallon tanks on them, and that would be roughly $700 per fill up. Over the course of a million miles (average 7 mpg), that’s $455,000 worth of diesel fuel at today’s current national average price. Again, it’s not a short term play, it’s a long term gain.

Nonetheless, it’s very exciting proposition, both in terms of what’a available for pre-order and what is to come. Eliminating emissions from 3.5 million trucks would be a massive gain for cleaner air, but certainly not the ultimate problem solver. It’s going to take more than just semi trucks to ultimately solve air quality problems, but it is a piece in the giant puzzle to make it all work in the end.

Brian Cole

I'm Brian and I'm the founder of I have a strong passion for fixing America's transportation infrastructure problem and traffic flow issues. I ultimately want to see the American economy grow as far as it will go, create massive amounts of jobs, and in that way help the quality of how people live.

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