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Could Tesla Power Its Electric Truck With Solar Panels?


Tesla just keeps making cool things. On the top of the list is its newest addition to the lineup, an all-electric semitruck. Oh, that might sound like a dumb idea—but I don't think so. Just consider how much stuff is shipped back and forth across the country. Clearly a train would be more efficient, but trucks also play a large role. It seems like the Tesla semi might be able to make two improvements over a traditional truck. First, the electric truck will clearly reduce emissions (depending on the energy source to charge these things). Second, with more onboard automation it is likely these semis will be significantly safer than their diesel counterparts.

But what if the Tesla semi also had solar panels? Elon Musk already has a whole company devoted to solar energy—why not just combine and conquer? Tesla and SolarCity are already teaming up to make solar panels, home batteries, and electric cars a unified energy system. Wouldn't slapping some solar panels on top of this truck's surface area make the thing more efficient? You can only learn by trying—so I'm going to estimate the effect of solar panels on the roof of the trailer.

How Much Power from the Roof?

How much power and how much energy (those are two different things) could you get from solar panels on the trailer? First, I guess I should point out the difference between power and energy. Power is the rate that you would get energy from the sun. At the surface of the Earth, the light from the sun produces about 1,000 Watts per square meter. In terms of energy, this is 1,000 Joules every second (assuming the panels are 100 percent efficient—which they're not).

The average power a solar panel produces depends on several things. Bigger solar panels provide greater power (that seems obvious). But it also depends on the efficiency and the angle at which the sunlight hits the panel. The best panels [available today are around 20 percent efficient](, and they work best when the light hits perpendicular to the panel.

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