Thirty-three buses from the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority system have been equipped with solar panels from the Warwick-based company eNow. The panels serve to power the buses’ batteries and to prolong battery life, according to RIPTA Director of Public Affairs Barbara Polichetti.
During fall 2019, RIPTA received 33 buses outfitted with solar panels from transit company Gillig, according to Polichetti.
The panels extend “the life of the buses’ batteries by two to three years,” said Guy Shaffer, chief marketing officer for eNow. “Instead of replacing (the batteries) every year, we’re going to get two to three times as much out of the same battery.”
Not only will the panels reduce costs for the physical battery replacements, but they will also save time, effort and expenses for road calls and jump-starting buses. “The solar panels for the RITPA buses are designed to help reduce jump-starts and road service due to weak or dead batteries,” Shaffer said. “When a bus doesn’t start because the batteries are too weak to turn over the engine, … RIPTA (has) to send one of their trucks out to jump-start it.” These benefits will help RIPTA reduce such costs.
The solar panels themselves are attached on top of the buses, so “you wouldn’t even know they were on there,” Polichetti said. In fact, the panels are only as thick as a few credit cards stacked together and are extremely light, she added. Additionally, the RIPTA bus yard is outside, making utilizing sunlight simple.
The buses still run on diesel fuel and the use of this technology “will not really affect our emissions,” said Polichetti. “This technology is used elsewhere in the transportation industry … for cutting down on idling, (but) our vehicles in general just don’t idle that long.”
But Shaffer pointed out that the solar panels will lower emissions during bus breakdowns, as a driver might let a bus idle for minutes or even hours to charge its batteries.
The project was primarily funded by a grant from the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation through the Renewable Energy Fund, according to Polichetti. The renewable energy grant paid $42,800 of the total cost of $64,800. “We are very appreciative of that grant,” Polichetti said.
Shaffer also added that “the solar system pays for itself in a matter of a couple of years, by reducing the replacement costs of the batteries and the road service and the labor for jump-starting.”
eNow has other fleets of tractor-trailers with “hundreds” of vehicles equipped with emission-reducing solar panels, but emission reduction is not the main goal of their collaboration with RIPTA, said Shaffer.
Currently, RIPTA “works closely with the state and is very in tune with the state’s commitment to combat climate change,” Polichetti said.
In a tweet, Governor Gina Raimondo stated that “equipping our RIPTA buses with solar systems is proof that smart investments in renewable energy benefit both the environment and the economy. I look forward to continuing to make RI a leader in clean energy.”
RIPTA has been working and testing buses with eNow for the past two to three years, and “this is the first time a public transit has gone through with (our) testing process … to confirm the value of solar … and then implement it on a group of buses,” said Shaffer.
Gillig has also never implemented a project like this before, “so we’re really cutting-edge here,” Shaffer said.
In the future, RIPTA would like to order more buses equipped with solar panels. While it “usually takes about a year to fulfill a bus order,” said Polichetti, “our goal, as we move forward with future bus procurements, is to retire older vehicles that don’t have these (solar panels) and to have the newer vehicles come with these equipped. That’s something our CEO is committed to and he’s looking into how to make that happen.”