Solar Awnings Could Be Part Of The Solution To Electric Trucks’ Towing Range Problem

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A couple of years ago, I wrote an article about a big problem electric pickups face: towing. Towing itself isn’t an issue, as electric motors have plenty of torque and can pull around heavy things. Today’s electric pickups are only half-ton, but that means a lot more than it used to back in the day. Today’s half-ton pickups are towing more than ever, and that includes the latest electric ones. They’re obviously no substitute for Class 3 and higher electric trucks, but they can tow car trailers, fifth wheel campers, and many other things.

But, when getting toward the limits of what they can tow, the range suffers. A 300-mile (EPA) electric pickup becomes a 100-mile truck, and perhaps worse for the tallest, least aerodynamically efficient trucks. Eventually, as the price of battery cells drops, electric trucks will be able to reasonably have 500 kWh battery packs and get amazing range even towing, but we don’t live in that world yet, and such a truck would be prohibitively expensive for most buyers (plus, it would be heavy as hell). Charging infrastructure will also eventually improve to the point where you can find a charge every 50 miles on any road, but like cheap batteries, we aren’t there yet, either.

But, this doesn’t mean electric trucks are useless for towing. With careful planning (using something like A Better Routeplanner) and maybe reduced speeds (which you should probably do while towing), you can still tow some decent loads to many places. With careful choices of trailer (especially campers), you can reduce the impacts of towing considerably.

At this point, we need to separate out some different kinds of loads. Some loads are inflexible, usually cargo. For things that can fit in an enclosed trailer, there’s some limited choice in trailer shape. For things that need to ride in the open, like construction equipment, you’re left with not much in the way of choices. But, for campers, you have a lot of flexibility in trailer choice that you can use to your advantage.

Image provided by Aliner.

For example, the recently-announced Aliner Amp is basically optimized for pulling with an EV. Instead of trying to pull a tall shape down the road, you can fold the camper down to make it drag less. It’s also relatively light. And, it has some serious onboard solar (800 watts) and a big battery by RV standards (5-15 kWh). It doesn’t drag the truck down so bad and it doesn’t need to take power from the truck to power things like a heat pump, induction cooktop, and other electric amenities.

That last part is pretty important. Electric trucks can typically offer you some serious power at a campsite or jobsite, but if you’re already towing a trailer and can barely make it to an outdoors destination in the backcountry, you don’t want to deplete the truck’s battery at the campsite too much. You’ll probably need most of what’s left (if not all) to get back home in 2023. Having a trailer that can mostly power itself means relying less on a scarce resource.

A smaller folding camper isn’t the best choice for everybody, though. Maybe your family is too big for it. Or, maybe you’re just not wanting to deal with the folding up and down. Whatever your reason, there’s a way you might be able to at least partially make up for the lost efficiency of a taller bumper pull or a smaller fifth wheel: a solar awning.

While the solar awning isn’t going to help you much with towing range, there are still some pretty potent options on the market that the video discusses. For example, the Xpanse offers up to 1200 watts of solar power, which is about what my largest Jackery solar kit has.

But, that 1200 watts of Jackery solar does have one downside: setup time. I have to get six panels out, unfold them, aim them at the sun, run wires to the power station, and then re-aim throughout the day to maximize charging. Don’t get me wrong, this is still excellent for longer camping trips, but if I’m only staying somewhere for one night, it’s tough to justify all the setup and takedown work. These solar awnings shown in the video, however, fold out in seconds or minutes and get to work generating electricity right away.

The largest solar awning the guy talks about puts my portable setup to shame with 1900 watts peak. In decent sun, you’re talking about enough power to run a small air conditioner or heat pump, and probably have enough power left to top up the house batteries. But, when those are full, you’ll have over 1,000 watts of power going to waste. So, it makes sense to plug the truck in and Level 1 charge, right?

You’re probably not going to get enough range to meaningfully impact your trip plans unless you’re spending a week in a spot with great sunlight, but being able to make sure you’re gaining at least a few miles of range instead of losing range during a trip is excellent. It may even be possible to use two or more awnings, add more rooftop solar to the trailer, and even add some folding solar panels to approach Level 2 charging speeds on sunlight, and then you’re talking about a meaningful contribution to range on trips where you’ll be sitting still for a few days.

This idea could also work for some cargo trailers, especially hybrid cargo/sleeper trailers, car trailers you’d use racing, and many other trailers that might spend a good amount of time sitting at the destination.

One last thing that makes solar awnings cool for electric towing is that solar technology is still improving. With today’s technology, you’re not going to get enough power to rely on for driving. But, as solar technology gets better and better, the amount of power you can get from an awning or two, plus rooftop solar on the camper or cargo trailer will improve. If you could easily get a dependable 5-10 kW of power, you’re talking about some actual useful charging capability for the tow vehicle.

But, even with today’s technology, keeping the trailer from eating the EV’s battery and maybe giving it a few extra miles of range is pretty cool!

Featured image: a screenshot from the embedded video (fair use, commentary).

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1761 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba