A Green Journey On Solar Rail – There Is Scope & Hope

Solar-powered Train: An Eco-friendly Mode of Transportation

From the first locomotive steam engine to the rails with supersonic speeds, trains have a glorious evolution to share with the world. Earlier, there were trains that were powered by horses. But as the human turned to machines, diesel engines came in, slowly taking away the charm of the environment. 

Now with the much-needed environmental awareness, trains are being reinvented into a green, eco-friendly mode of transport i.e. introduction of solar-powered train. Australia, India and the UK have already taken the lead in this matter!

The World’s First Solar-powered Train

The UK is set to welcome its first solar-powered train in 2020 with a project called ‘First Light.’ Riding Beams, a leading global initiative will introduce a solar farm to supply power to a UK railway line. With this, the company would set in motion, the first-ever solar-powered train in the world. 

The company is aiming to build and connect a solar farm that is community-owned. The initiative is being furthered by a collaboration between climate change charity 10:10, Network Rail (National rail infrastructure operator), and Community Energy South. In addition, there will be a syndicate of specialist engineering and renewable energy consultants and academics working side by side.

The initiative is going to be a demonstration.  And if successful, will prove that solar can safely bypass the electricity grid to supply direct-energy to the UK railway’s traction system. 

The new 30kWp solar test unit is made up of approximately 100 solar panels. It will be connected to an ancillary transformer on the Wessex Route’s traction system. As per reports, the solar array will be capable of powering the signalling and lights. 

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Before setting the project in motion, the team is working on gathering electricity demand data. This will come from six potential community solar sites in the south of England. The collected real-world data will be analysed to explore the possibility of developing larger solar arrays to power trains.   

As of now, solar panels have already been used to power operations of train station like Blackfriars in London. But this time a solar array will be used to connect to the railway line at a site in Aldershot.

Benefits of Solar-powered Train

This being a social project, Riding Sunbeams aims at promoting local investment and local community benefit funds. Rail passengers will also have the opportunity to invest in such pioneering ‘solar traction farms.’ 

This time, the First Light project is funded by the Department for Transport through a one-of-a-kind Round 2 competition. The project came into existence after a research that was conducted by 10:10 Climate Action and Imperial College London’s Energy Future’s Lab. According to the research, if solar panels are connected directly to rail, tram and tube networks, it could significantly meet the energy needs. More importantly, the study also found that this renewable power could be supplied at a cost lower than electricity supplied through grids. And this is possible even without the need for public subsidy.

Furthermore, research done by Riding Sunbeams shows that solar has the capacity to power 20% of the Merseyrail network in Liverpool. Moreover, it could also power 15% of commuter routes in Kent, Sussex and Wessex. In fact, there is also scope for solar trams in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Manchester, London and Nottingham, as per the company. 

Solar For The Largest Train Network In Asia 

Is Solar-powered Train Practical For Smart Cities?

According to sources, the model approved for the UK train project could be used across the world. Countries like India and South America where the climate is hot and sunny are in a better position for it.

However, India has already introduced its first solar-powered train in 2017, the model is not the same though. Known as the Diesel Electric Multiple Unit (DEMU), it operates in the capital city of New Delhi. This is the first time a solar panel is being used as a grid to the power rail.

The solar panels were created and installed by the company Jackson Engineers Limited. However, the manufacturing was done under the initiative ‘Make in India’ with an investment of $75,000.

Sandeep Gupta, Vice Chairman and Managing Director of the company revealed that installation of the solar panels on the train car was challenging. Fitting solar panels on the top of the train coaches running at a speed of 80 km per hour, is no easy feat. The panels are fed into an onboard battery that can run for a minimum of 72 hours. 

The train is not entirely solar-powered and hence is pulled by a diesel locomotive. The solar energy is used to power lights, information displays and fans on the passenger train. 

Benefits 

Although this is just a single train now being run on solar, its economic benefits are significant. Six solar panels used have been estimated to save 21,000 litres of diesel fuel annually at a cost savings of nearly $20,000. 

India has the largest rail network in Asia with more than 11,000 trains moving about 13 million passengers every day. This results in spending of over $2.5 billion on diesel. Hence, in the hope to decrease its fuel consumption, India is gradually shifting to solar energy. Depending on the initiatives the country rolls out in the decade, there will be savings of $6.31 billion. 

Currently, India is running 250 solar-powered train having panels installed on the roof of the trains. Now, it is planning to create its own trackside solar farms as the weight of the panels equal to more energy used. 

Furthermore, the Indian Railways are aiming to become the world’s first 100% green railway network over the 10-year period. This follows the goal for installation of 30GW of solar generation capacity on a few of its vacant lands that equal to 51,000 hectares. 

By 2025, Indian Railways is anticipating to meet a third of its electricity demand from renewable energy sources. 

Why Solar Energy Is Best Suited To Trains?

For a few years, engineers have been trying to introduce solar-powered cars, which has been a challenge. This is because cars require plenty of energy, as they move between sunlight and shadow and take small stops, frequently. More importantly, small vehicles have a roof that is too small to install a solar panel that can produce sufficient power. 

While in the case of a train it follows a straight and fixed route. And, it can quickly get recharged using electricity by a static solar panel, at each stop. For these reasons and more, rails are the target for many renewable projects in the world. But even with that being said, you will soon see a fully-powered solar car on the road, this year in 2019.  

In the end, it is true that using a solar panel to power rails will lead to a huge reduction in carbon emissions. Nevertheless, it is interesting to know that trains contribute to emissions way less than car and air travel. Estimates show that trains are energy-efficient for carriers and goods and produce less CO2 per passenger compared to other modes. Hence, it is evident that if you as a passenger choose to travel by rail, you will reduce your contribution to climate change. 

Next time, if you are planning a leisure journey within your country, do it by rail! 

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