Can Our Trains Be Powered By Solar and Wind?

Solar has come a long way in the last couple of decades. You can hardly walk down a street in the UK nowadays without seeing at least one roof adorned with solar PV panels – nearly a million of us have them on our roofs.

Now a UK university and renewables charity are pairing up to see if solar PV can be used for running our trains.

Imperial College London and 10:10 are looking at whether it’s possible to connect the electric power lines that drive many of our train systems to solar panels. With the rail infrastructure slowly being changed from trains that run on fossil fuel diesel to those that are powered by electricity, it makes sense to find more eco-friendly ways to provide and produce that energy.

And with many rail systems around the world also following suit, the UK could be a leader in the use of solar power for this sector.

The charity 10:10 believes that we could completely decarbonise the rail system over the next thirty years. Research and development will first look at third rail systems where the power is supplied by cables close to the ground. The development will mean that our rail system could well be independent of the National Grid and the innovations in solar power storage over the next few years could also make a big difference. At the moment, peak solar production aligns quite well with the peak time for trains on the current rail network but there will still be a need for a good deal of storage.

According to the team at Imperial College there are a number of major issues to overcome in the meantime:

“Firstly, the third rail on most rail networks is also used for signalling purposes, so injecting power could lead to communications issues. There are also the issues around safety and integration of a secondary power source and managing how and when the solar power is being sent to the third rail.”

Of course, there are plenty of developments going on with renewables and how they can be used for our transport system in particular. In the Netherlands, the major train companies have worked hard to ensure that it’s trains are now powered entirely by wind energy. This has been led by NS who formed a partnership with energy company Eneco. At the beginning of this year, the company estimated that all of its customers were using a rail system that was entirely powered by wind.

This power is procured from newly built wind farms in the Netherlands, Belgium and Finland though there has been some debate about how the utility company can ensure this is actually the case. Eneco does it by obtaining what are called Guarantees of Origin which can be bought from countries where the production of renewables exceeds the local demand.

Where the Imperial College experiment might well differ is that we could see our rail lines connecting directly with solar panels that have been built for that specific purpose. Obviously, this will require a huge infrastructure change but the team believe that many of the current third rail systems are in locations where this is perfectly possible.