Building integrated solar is already a thing, and solar on wheels is not far behind. One of the latest examples is the US company eNow. Company founder, president, and CEO Jeffrey Flath graciously made a stop at my hometown last week with one of his solar-equipped trucks to provide CleanTechnica with an exclusive look at how the solar truck market is done. Somewhat surprisingly, one important key to the whole thing is liftgates.
Liftgates And The Solar Truck Revolution
Yes, liftgates. That’s the equipment hanging off the back of delivery and shipping trucks, which can be lowered down and out to make the loading/unloading process go more quickly and efficiently.
Liftgates are typically powered by an auxiliary battery, which sounds like an emission-free operation except that in order to keep the battery charged up, truckers have to keep the engine idling.
Otherwise, they end up stuck on the road with a dead battery and an expensive roadside service call to make.
Anti-idling laws can make exceptions for liftgate operation, but as air pollution regulations tighten (especially in urban areas), the industry is already looking for alternative solutions.
That’s where eNow comes in. The basic idea is to combine solar-sourced, on-the-go electricity with a lithium-ion battery, providing enough juice to power the liftgate and other auxiliary equipment through the run.
If you caught that thing about combining solar + storage, you’re on to something. An important part of eNow’s business model is the offering of a proprietary turnkey solution that includes an energy management software package, too.
More Good News For Solar Truck Fans
Aside from dis-encumbering truckers from regulatory compliance issues, one obvious bottom line attraction of the eNow system is the fuel savings.
The hurdle that companies like eNow face is to convince prospective customers that the up-front investment in solar really does pay off. To get past that roadblock, eNow has adopted an Energy-as-Service model that breaks down the investment into a kind of “SolarCity on wheels” offer, as Flath calls it.
Rather than paying for the equipment up front, eNow clients pay down the cost based on the savings they achieve by reducing their use of diesel. That’s similar to an emerging trend in the building industry, in which energy efficiency retrofits can be installed without an upfront investment.
According the Flath, the payback period can be as little as six to 18 months.
Another significant part of the savings has to do with the reduction — or outright elimination — of roadside service calls due to dead batteries. Think of a large urban delivery fleet, and you can see how the savings can add up.
According to one company cited by Flath, the expense of roadside service and battery replacement — including driver down time and other losses such as food spoilage — can add up to $3,000 per call.
The solar solution helps reduce that exposure, and it also reduces the risk of losing a valued customer due to a failed delivery.
That goes a long way to explaining why a fleet manager would invest in solar panels that are placed vertically, as shown in the photo at the top of this page. It’s hardly an optimal angle for solar conversion efficiency, but as long as the panels are contributing juice to the battery, they’re achieving the fuel savings and energy storage goals.
Besides, side placement is just one option. The placement depends on where the truck is free of other equipment, windows, or other structural impediments.
So, Who’s In…
According to Flath, eNow is looking at a truck market that consists of “everything that moves,” including RVs.
Educating fleet owners and managers about the latest solar technology is a significant part of the task, of course. As Flath tells it, solar panels in general are becoming territory, but many in the industry still perceive of them as somewhat thick, heavy rigid affairs. The eNow system is based on lightweight thin panels that can be easily attached to truck surfaces with velcro.
As demonstrated by Flath, from the front eNow’s panels look fairly conventional…
…but the side view clearly demonstrates the difference:
Aside from the savings in weight (which translates into fuel savings), the whisper-thin profile also comes in handy for panels that are mounted on the sides of trucks that need to negotiate tight urban spaces.
Among other news, last spring eNow hooked up with global RV industry leader Dometic for solar powered auxiliary AC units for trucks.
That partnership has just come into play as part of a new $400,000 grant from the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, aimed at proving the road-worthiness of solar powered truck refrigeration units based on a 12-hour run.
With eNow providing the solar solution, the collaborative effort brings in Johnson Truck Bodies for the demonstration vehicle, to be operated by Challenge Dairy. Emerson is also part of the team. Testing is expected to begin next month so stay tuned for that.
Among other partners, eNow’s roster includes Arpin Van Lines, Mitsubishi Fuso, Freightliner, and Navistar.
…And Why Are They In?
Throughout our interview, Flath emphasized the bottom line benefits of an integrated mobile renewable energy scavenging system.
That’s becoming familiar territory as renewable energy costs have been dropped. Combined with energy storage and new pay-as-you-save financing systems, both solar and wind energy are rapidly gaining new fans among individual companies, and among regional electricity planners and providers.
Flath also made sure to open up the conversation to encourage fleet managers to make decisions that help propel the global transition out of fossil fuel dependency for other reasons.
“It’s about the survival of humanity,” said Flath. “Looking to the future, if people don’t think about what’s going to happen 250 years from now…”
All photos: by Tina Casey.