In a railway track in Aldershot, a solar farm (photovoltaic power station) is for the first time in the world charging a rail line, ushering a new wave of trains powered by solar energy. Launched on the 22nd of August, 2019, the track is powered by 100 solar panels supplying the needed power for lights and signalling across Wessex’s Network Rail system. The track itself is also receiving a small energy supply.
The solar power project is a pilot scheme expected to start off a gigantic project with the ability to power trains plying the route directly from 2020. With the launch, the project makes the Aldershot scheme the first solar-powered railway line capable of working without the input of the national grid. It’s expected to begin the comprehensive supply of renewable energy to UK railway from solar farms.
The pilot scheme has been christened “Riding Sunbeams”, a project by Network Rail, Community Energy South and 10:10 Climate Action (charity dealing with climate change issues). Also involved is the University of Birmingham, which is analysing all data gathered throughout the process to investigate the possibility of plugging into huge photovoltaic power stations to electrify trains in the UK.
Riding Sunbeams’ two-year project research concluded that solar energy is capable of powering 20 per cent of Liverpool’s Merseyrail network and 15 per cent of Wessex, Sussex and Kent commuter networks. The scope incorporates trams in Manchester, London, Nottingham, Glasgow and Edinburgh as well.
Local community investment
Local communities spread around the rail lines aren’t left out. The project will also include local communities in about a year’s time to allow them to invest and have a stake in the scheme. In less than 18 months, the project seeks to have a solar traction farm in operation owned by commuters and communities.
Renewable solar energy cheaper
10:10 Climate Action had carried out a study on the viability of the project and ascertained that solar panels if connected with tram, tube and rail networks could actually provide the required electricity to run them. In the study, solar renewably energy was found as a more affordable source than national grid-supplied energy without any public subsidy needed.
Network Rail has been looking into solar as the perfect energy source to power rail lines and has put aside billions of pounds to ensure their trains are no longer powered by diesel. In the process, Network Rail will be helping lower greenhouse gasses depleting the ozone, lower costs and lessen air pollution significantly.
Solar energy already in use
While the Aldershot scheme is one of a kind, solar panels have been powering trains in the UK for a while, such as central London’s Blackfriars. With the scheme, Network Rail will be developing capacity to power all its railway lines by solar across the UK.
According to Network Rail, the main aim of the project is rolling out the technology throughout their network once the pilot scheme has succeeded. As such, renewable energy will deliver a cleaner, environmental friendly and greener railway that benefits the entire public and passengers.
The findings of the Riding Sunbeams research come at a time when electrification of railway lines in Britain seem to have vacillated in recent times due to heavy costs involved. However, enhancement in solar power technology means that solar farms, which are subsidy-free, might be the best solution of electrifying rail lines in the UK at a lower cost than that of the national grid.
Solar power already electrifying trains globally
Around the world, solar panels are already in use, powering vehicles and train stations. Australia for instance has already launched a train powered by a solar-charged battery. Antwerp Central Station is also being powered by some measure of solar energy, which is expected to increase.
With the success of the Aldershot scheme, the same model is expected to be adopted around the world in countries with sufficient sun such as India and South American nations.
In fact, India is already running solar-powered trains (over 250) and working towards developing photovoltaic power stations for its tracks. This will remove the weight of solar panels on the roof of the solar-powered trains to lessen energy consumption.
Since Indian Railway remains the largest consumer of energy within its borders, the country seeks to have a third of the total electricity needed to power trains produced from renewable power sources by 2025. 30GW solar energy installations are currently being set up towards this end in over 50,000 hectares of unused land.