Direct solar power for railways coming soon

Renewable energy has quietly crept into the US rail industry, but the pace has been woefully slow. Things could speed up if a new solar energy research project in Germany comes to fruition. It aims for dual sustainability, by leveraging the built environment of railways for direct electrification.

More solar energy for cleaner rail transport

Rapid decarbonization is already within reach in the field of commuter rail transport, where many systems are electrified via the local grid. All you have to do is replace fossil power plants with solar power or other renewables, and maybe add bulk energy storage to boot.

That’s great, but the German research project seeks to harness the existing rail infrastructure to generate electricity directly to the railroad from solar panels. By directly supplying the railway system with electricity, they anticipate the advantage of avoiding energy losses during transport, as well as creating new opportunities for the installation of solar panels.

The new research could also help solve railroad electrification issues here in the United States, where diesel-electric locomotives still do the heavy lifting of transporting freight and passengers over long distances (more on that diesel-electric thing in a second).

More solar power for the railways, in a way

The new research project is placed under the aegis of the German Rail Traffic Research Center of the Federal Railways Authority, which commissioned the company TÜV Rheinland to study new opportunities to deploy solar energy in and around rail infrastructure.

This is a tricky task, in part because Germany already has a lot of solar energy.

“Because rail transport is highly electrified and already uses a lot of renewable energies, it already has a favorable greenhouse gas emissions balance in terms of consumption”, observes TÜV Rheinland, while stressing that the project research aims to improve this image.

The project manager of TÜV Rheinland, Jürgen van der Weem, develops this theme.

“If it turns out to be possible to generate energy along the widely branched rail electrification system and feed it directly, which makes better use of existing infrastructure and reduces energy losses through Multiple conversion and transport, the rail transport mode could further improve its performance. greenhouse gas balance, ”he explains.

The project targets various types of infrastructure along the railway rights-of-way, such as the integration of solar panels in the railways or the production of solar energy from noise walls equipped with photovoltaic systems.

Electric locomotives for the United States

Whatever the source of solar energy, the stipulation is that the rail photovoltaic systems must be directly connected to the German 15 kilovolt overhead grid.

The results of the research project should be available soon. The team is looking at a 14-month timeline, although apparently they anticipate that some regulatory hurdles will need to be removed or adjusted before their vision of direct solar power to the railroad becomes a reality.

U.S. railways have a much longer line to go when it comes to integrating renewables, but there are signs that a change is coming, and it could happen quickly.

Rather than electrifying entire rail lines, much of the activity in the United States has focused on the electrification of locomotives.

Our friends at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory point out that the United States is actually a step ahead in this regard. Almost all of the locomotive fleet in the United States uses diesel-electric technology. They use diesel fuel to power an on-board generator, which supplies electricity to the motors that drive the wheels. It’s a long story, but diesel-electric technology has established itself in the United States as a more cost-effective alternative to coal-fired steam locomotives, and they have never lost their grip.

Replace the diesel with batteries and Bob is your uncle. The idea would be to couple the battery to the locomotives on a tender converted car.

The Berkeley team also points out that the centralized nature of the U.S. rail system would help reduce the cost of installing battery charging stations at key locations. From there, it is sufficient to supply the charging stations with electricity from solar panels and other renewable resources.

“Improved battery technology and access to inexpensive renewable electricity opens up the possibility of a battery-powered electric rail. Here we show that a range of 241 km can be achieved using a single standard covered wagon fitted with a 14 MWh battery and an inverter, while consuming half of the energy consumed by diesel trains ” , explained the Berkeley Lab team.

As for the very important cost factor, they have it covered as well:

“At short-term battery prices, battery-powered electric trains can achieve parity with diesel-electric trains if environmental costs are included or if railway companies can access wholesale electricity prices and reach 40% d use of the fast-charging infrastructure. Accounting for reduced criteria air pollutants and CO2 emissions, switching to battery electric propulsion would save the US rail freight industry $ 94 billion over 20 years.

Solar energy, coming soon to a railroad near you

As shippers and their customers want the means of transportation with the lowest possible carbon footprint, battery-powered locomotives seem to have the edge over electric trucks, especially when you add the carbon footprint of the vehicle. repair of highways and tire wear. and tear.

While Berkeley Lab tries to convince the rail industry that upgrading diesel-electric locomotives with batteries is a good thing, some are not waiting for it.

Pittsburgh-based company Wabtec, for example, recently launched an all-electric locomotive for its first run. The idea is to pair the new locomotive with the company’s latest generation of fuel-efficient diesel locomotives, which is not the same as an all-electric train. However, Wabtec still expects significant fuel savings from the setup. Solar power could come into play depending on the location of charging stations, and the rail industry could further reduce its carbon load by expanding its use of biodiesel.

Another approach comes from a project called Solar Train, which started as a DIY company in 2016 and now has the support of several players in the rail industry. The solar train consists of superimposing solar panels on the rail cars, which fits perfectly into the model of direct solar power to the railroad.

The use of fuel cells in locomotives complements the angle of solar power, but only to the extent that hydrogen comes from renewable sources instead of gas or coal, using solar power or other renewable energies to fuel the extraction process.

So far, fuel cell locomotive activity has been slow to take off in the United States, but an ongoing project in California indicates that switching locomotives could be the first to come out of the box. Switches are working at freight stations, and reducing pollution from freight stations and other shipping operations is a priority in the environmental justice movement, so stay tuned for more at this subject.

Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.

Photo: Solar energy for railways courtesy of TÜV Rheinland.

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