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A new age: Solar for refrigerated trucks

At the recent UN Climate Change conference, COP 27 held in November 2022 in Egypt, it was declared that the window for climate change action is closing rapidly, writes Lizelle van der Berg, director – GCCA South Africa.

Schematic diagram of solar system and components. Image supplied by GEA
Schematic diagram of solar system and components. Image supplied by GEA

When it comes to environmental sustainability, finding new solutions is imperative and effective action is needed now. Sevana Ganes, SHERQ executive of Vector Logistics explains how their passion for “Going Beyond” has led to this new journey of solar for their refrigerated trucks with the aim to reduce dependency on non-renewable resources, reduce carbon footprint and ultimately safeguarding the environment.

Ganes explains that being sustainable and responsible is a key focus area for Vector Logistics and initiatives implemented over the past five years include water harvesting, using recycled wastewater, a focus to divert food waste from landfill, rooftop solar and now the installation of solar driving cooling units for refrigerated vehicles.

The solar-powered refrigerated truck journey of Vector Logistics

At the onset Vector Logistics understood that they needed to partner with experts in this industry who will be able to deliver on their objectives. Their journey started in May 2020 with a trial installation of solar refrigeration on one truck (8 ton) at their Peninsula Hub, explains Ganes. Jurie Schoeman, operations executive at Vector Logistics notes that the vehicles are run off a 70/30 split between electrical charge of battery and solar top up.

“Solar compliments refrigeration very well in a symbiotic relationship, because when there are long sunny days and ample solar energy is generated from the PV panels, there is also a greater demand on the refrigeration load,” says Schoeman.

Schoeman explains that the trial continued for two years to establish data and viability for their operations and type of fleet. Data from the trial confirmed that they could run solar for the entire day that the truck was on the road (12 hour workday) and showed a fuel saving of 3.5l per hour (equates to 100% fuel saving on the fridge use if functioning optimally).

“The environmental benefits showed an average monthly CO2 reduction of 550kg per vehicle per month,” says Schoeman.

As per Anrich Joubert, coastal fleet manager, Vector Logistics, the carbon footprint reduction can be greatly increased if the depots compliment the vehicle charging stations with solar rooftops. Since the trial data yielded significant benefits, Vector Logistics purchased four additional units for their 14-ton vehicles which were installed between August-November 2022.

“Key business considerations would be to ensure you have a strategic sustainability framework to support the business objectives, partnering with an experienced energy partner who is committed to achieving your goals, recognise that there will be initial capex investments and that a trial is essential to obtain reliable data and consistent performance,” says Ganes.

Schoeman notes that the key technical considerations include payload and equipment to balance gross vehicle mass (GVM) as well as legal requirements, delivery hours, size of battery and solar panels, charging capacity and geographical layout.

“Our secondary vehicles are loaded at night and plugged into the electricity to run the refrigeration units which also charge the batteries,” says Joubert. “Deliveries take place mostly during the day when our customer’s receivings are open which makes this solution perfect for our operation.” At night the cooling units are powered by electricity, not diesel and during the day batteries are recharged through solar. It is also recommended to secure equipment to prevent theft and tampering.

Another key consideration which is new to the South African context on truck solar panels is understanding the health and safety and insurable risks (fire and electrical) associated with the installations. Gains explains that Vector Logistics has opted on using a low voltage system (48V), to avoid any potential electrical and fire dangers in case of a vehicle accident, bridge strike or other potential hazardous scenarios. A low voltage system is unable to cause any harm to a person. Additional fire mitigating measures in place include automatic fire extinguishers, automatic battery shut-offs and automotive grade battery cells that cannot ignite.


“Overall benefits seen to date include fuel usage savings, fuel cost savings due to the high-cost increase in fuel as well as the CO2 emission reduction with a 2-year return on investment and 12-year life expectancy of the solar battery and panels,” says Schoeman. “There are also ancillary benefits of reducing noise pollution, as electric is silent, and it is also now possible to switch the vehicle engine off because the tail lift and other electrics operate from solar and battery,” he adds. Data is tracked live and managed on an online dashboard which allows them to make key decisions immediately.

“Our journey has only just begun; however, we see it yielding both business and environmental benefits over a short- and long-term period,” says Ganes. “Significant time, effort and energy has gone into this, and it is not a one size fits all situation. However, operating sustainably is key to our business success and living sustainably is everyone’s responsibility. We believe that effort in the right direction will have your business on the correct footing and will leave a better South Africa for all,” she concludes.