A rail line in Hampshire is the world’s first to be powered by solar energy. Since last summer, around 100 solar panels at the edge of a track near Aldershot began supplying renewable electricity to power the signalling and lights on Network Rail’s Wessex route.
Whilst this is only a pilot scheme, the 30KW project could pave the way for a larger project capable of directly powering the trains that use the route from this year.
This breakthrough comes at a time where Network Rail have unveiled plans to spend billions of pounds electrifying rail lines and to move away from running trains on diesel. This will reduce the carbon emissions produced by travelling via rail but could also reduce costs and levels of local air pollution.
Some train stations already use solar energy to power their operations such as London Blackfriars. However, the Aldershot scheme is the first time that a solar array will bypass the electricity grid and plug directly into a railway’s system.
The continued fall in the cost of solar power could mean that solar farms of this type could supply electricity at a lower cost than what is currently offered by the grid. This is certainly welcoming in a time where customers continue to face increasing rail fares.
However, this is also good news for the government and for Network Rail in particular, who have seen plans to electrify Britain’s rail network stall due to concerns over the costs of electrification. If solar can provide electricity cheaper than what is currently provided by the grid, the costs of electrification will go down significantly.
This isn’t the only innovative pilot solar-rail scheme currently underway. Bankset Energy Corporation are undergoing trials across Europe where they are installing solar panels on rail tracks as can be seen in the picture below. The solar panels are designed to clip over existing railway sleepers and can produce 200 Mw of electricity for every 1,000km of track according to the company.
If this scheme is successful it is very likely that we could see our railways almost completely powered by solar energy in the future.
However, if we are to power our railways with 100% solar electricity it is important that adequate backup systems are in place for times when the sun isn’t shining. Rail operators and companies would need to invest in battery storage or backup generators to ensure a consistent supply of electricity is sent to our rail network.
This is certainly achievable and something that we may see more of in the coming years.
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