Pioneering solar energy work could change the way we power our railways, leading to huge carbon reductions.
Network Rail have recently set themselves tough, science-based targets both to improve their own carbon footprint and to encourage others to do the same. They’re aiming to get 75% of their suppliers to commit to science-based emissions targets too.
Solar energy for railway lines
Network Rail have already proven their commitment to renewable energy, with stations, depots and offices entirely powered by renewable energy, and electric vehicles among their road vehicle fleet.
Rail is held up as the best way to transport freight, with each train carrying the equivalent of 76 lorries, and every tonne of freight reducing the carbon footprint of transportation by 76%. However, the rail network is the single biggest energy consumer in the UK, accounting for 1% of all the energy used.
This has prompted Network Rail to look at ways to move away from reliance on the National Grid and turn to solar energy.
Working with social enterprise Riding Sunbeams, solar energy generated by a small solar farm in Aldershot has been fed straight into the rail network.
The pilot has started small, with 100 solar panels producing enough power to run the signalling and switching on the line, and although it’s only 1% of the energy needed for a heavy freight train, it proves the technology works.
The big difference with this project when compared with other solar energy projects is that the energy goes direct to the line, not via National Grid. Generally, energy from solar panels goes into the Grid, which is then sold back to the user at a special, lower rate. In this set-up, there is no need for this.
What does it mean for our rail networks?
Although small, this pilot scheme has proved that the technology works, and there’s the potential for the UK’s entire rail infrastructure to be powered by self-generated solar energy, without the need for the National Grid to be involved.
The changes can be made without causing problems to the trains currently in use, it just needs to be done on a larger scale.
Their next target in this particular project is to produce 10% of the energy needed to run the UK’s electrified rail routes. These routes are largely in the South East of England and various sites are currently being assessed to see if they can take the number of solar panels needed and to verify how much power the lines use.
Partner enterprise Riding Sunbeams has taken advantage of the Getting Building Fund, with £2.5 million to invest in building and connecting a solar energy plant in East Sussex. This new plant will also be linked to the railways and should be complete by March 2022, where it will be the largest in the UK so far, at 3.75MW.
Investment will also be coming from local residents and commuters who regularly use the line. They’ll see a return on their investment through the money Network Rail pay for the energy, which will still be much reduced from the price of energy from the Grid.
The success of this new technology has drawn attention from other networks too, with Transport for Wales and Transport for London investigating how it could work for them.
Overall, it looks like travelling by solar energy could be a common occurrence in the not-too-distant future.
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