DHL has invested in Trailar, which was set up to take the technology to market. There are the mats themselves, with the technology having evolved sufficiently to turn the vision into reality. They have 18 percent efficiency, are light – 2kg per m² – are just 3mm thick so are aerodynamic, have good shade performance (a loss of about 10 percent), are shatterproof and durable.
They are sourced from Santa Clara, California-based MiaSolé, a specialist in thin-film Copper Indium Gallium Selenide (CIGS) modules, cells and equipment and a subsidiary of Hanergy Thin Film Power Group.
The other part of the solution is the smart charge controller, which hooks up the solar to the battery. Thomas describes this as “the brains of the system”, collecting real-time data including energy savings, and linking to the fleet management system and GPS.
The panels and charger can be installed in three or four hours and cost £1800 for a rigid vehicle and £2500 for a trailer. A benefit of the latter is that the system provides power, such as for a lift, even when the trailer is decoupled from the cab. There is a version for refrigerated vans.
On rigid vehicles, says Thomas, there is a fuel saving of around fiver percent, with a return on investment (RoI) of 12 to 18 months. For a trailer, the fuel saving is around 2.5 percent but he says the typical RoI is still less than two years.
The solar mats are now on 1000+ vehicles. Trailar’s aim is 5000 by the end of this year. DHL has them on vehicles in Thailand and South Africa, with the US on the way. Large US company, Ryder Rental, has taken them for its rigid trucks in the UK. They are on a number of buses in the UK and on a first FlixBus, for its Dortmund to London route, with a claimed seven percent fuel saving for the latter, even in the winter months. Alba Group in Singapore is putting them on its waste collection trucks. Other customers are Royal Mail, Johnson & Johnson and Go-Ahead.
There is the potential with solar to counter some of the common arguments against EVs, to do with pressure on the grid, overall lifetime carbon footprint, range and convenience. Whoever are the winners in this space (and it is fair to assume that current car manufacturers, at least, will pile in at some point), Lightyear, Sono Motors and Trailar are pioneering vehicle technology that could change the face of EVs for the better.