Tom Ditto, right, vice president of food service for Challenge Dairy Products, Inc., stands next to his company delivery truck, which is the test vehicle for a new type of refrigeration system that works on diesel and electricity rather than diesel fuel. Photo by David Castellon

published on October 26, 2017 - 11:17 AM
Written by David Castellon

When you consider where to install solar panels, chances are your first thought is a home or other building.

The top of a truck may not come to mind, but it did to representatives of a group of business operators who had the idea of lining the top of a refrigerator truck with solar panels to help power its cooling system.

Now it’s more than just an idea.

Solar panels line the top of a new type of refrigerated truck being developed to replace diesel-powered refrigeration systems.


For the past five months, a 24-foot-long, solar-powered delivery truck belonging to Challenge Dairy Products’ Fresno distribution center has been driven to various Valley grocery stores and other stops delivering dairy products.

Earlier this month the San Joaquin Valley Air District, which is footing a portion of the $1.2 million cost to develop the solar-powered truck refrigeration system, held a press conference to show it to the public.

Fresno County Supervisor Buddy Mendes said the purpose of this new technology is to help the Valley reach federal clean-air standards, despite that being a nearly impossible goal.

“These are only little things we can do going forward,” and this new technology is one of them, he explained.

Organizers said this is the first solar-powered refrigerated truck on the road. Most truck refrigeration systems are diesel powered, generating pollutants on top of those coming from the truck’s engine.

Although testing and modifications on the Challenge truck still have more than six months to go, Tom Ditto, vice president of food service for Dublin-based Challenge, said during his presentation that initial tests have shown a 98-percent reduction of harmful emissions from the new refrigeration system compared to standard diesel systems.

In addition, based on those same initial findings, the developers of the solar-connected system — which they call “rayfrigeration” — estimated that savings on fuel and maintenance could total about $3,100 a year per truck.

“If we’re going to get change, we have to have innovation,” and the district’s Technology Advancement Program is doing that by offering grants to help develop clean-air technology, said Samir Sheikh, deputy air pollution control officer for the district.

The grant used to develop the new refrigeration system totals $400,000, with the U.S. Environmental Protection agency providing $175,000 of it and the Valley Air District providing the rest.

The remaining investments in the product’s development are coming from the four partners: Challenge; Emerson Electric, which designed and built the motor, compressor and controls for the truck refrigeration system; eNow, Inc., which manufactured the solar panels; and Great Dane Truck bodies, which constructed the truck, incorporating the new clean-energy refrigeration system into it.

Eduardo Navarro, director of business development for Great Dane, said the test truck was built at the company’s plant in Wisconsin and delivered in April to Fresno. He noted that much of the technology in the truck already is available on some standard trucks, but the solar panels and the mechanical modifications to use solar energy are something new.

“What you are seeing here is a combination of technologies, some of which has been around for awhile,” he told reporters.

“We’re very proud to be part of this — especially that this test is being done in the San Joaquin Valley,” Ditto said. “We are a dairy [cooperative] owned by dairy farmers who are very committed to business and the environment in California and the San Joaquin Valley.”

As such, Ditto said he had no reservations when Navarro asked if Challenge would operate the test truck.

And while clean air is an important goal, Navarro said it’s important to develop technology that also makes sense for businesses, which includes pricing.

Ditto said a refrigerated truck like the test truck, but equipped with a standard diesel-powered cooling system, would cost about $100,000, and he estimated that one equipped with solar panels and cooling system developed by the partner companies might cost a little less.

Navarro, whose company plans to build and sell the rayfrigeration trucks after the testing is done, said prices haven’t been worked out yet, but his company wants to have a price tag no more that $3,000 over the price of a standard refrigeration truck — if it ends up costing more.

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