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Playthings lead to substance? Incremental to real change? What does a “solar train” really mean?

December 22nd, 2017 · No Comments

Electrification of rail, a global phenomena (with, sigh, a major exception in the US/Canadian market), has significant positive impacts:

  • Improved rail capacity
    • with no other change, roughly 15% improvement in capacity due increased efficiency in braking/acceleration
  • Interesting options for improving grid reliability, connections, etc …
    • rail right of way as viable for power lines
  • Reduced costs
    • moving via electricity
  • Increased safety
    • including due to reduced oil movements
  • Reduced pollution
    • both local and globally
    • moving from diesel to electric locomotives (or overhead power lines)
  • Solar panels provide electricity to run coach systems

With the plunging cost of solar power, an increasing ‘buzz’ over the past few years has been various ‘solar train’-related stories. India has been a space of dramatic change over just a few years — with decisions to move from diesel to electric trains soon followed by decisions to invest in solar (including at train stations) to moves to incorporate solar power into the trains themselves.  Serious progress that has accelerated with improving technologies, dramatic price cuts, and clear-thinking analysis supporting decision-making processes.  Along the way, however, some breathlessly headlined stories suggesting total change when, in fact, it was more ‘simply’ an incredible step along the way.

For example, from India came stories headlined like Endgaget’s India’s first solar-powered train makes its debut. As something in the range of >95% of people never read more

Solar on coaches will displace diesel fuel

than the headline (or the tweet or …), easy to understand why people would think “wow, India Rail is moving people with solar”.  Before ‘debunking’, to make clear, the real story from India is a pretty good one that shouldn’t be dismissed but it isn’t accurately reflected by the headline. A more accurate headline from Quartz India is rolling out trains with solar-powered coaches that’ll save thousands of litres of diesel. “Solar-assisted coaches” — each coach has 16 300 watt panels (total peak capacity of 4.8kilowatts) to take up the hotel load: “for powering internal lights, fans and other electrical systems of the coach”

This is the first instance involving the installation of a solar rooftop system in a diesel-run passenger train with a battery backup. The system is capable of developing up to 20 kilowatt-hour (kWh) per day throughout the year

Those solar panels are displacing electricity that, otherwise, “from a diesel-driven generator“. Thus, the solar panels are absolutely reducing diesel-fuel use to move passengers — but certainly not eliminating it and, well, really acting at the margins.

From Australia, however, comes news of an actual fully solar-powered train which made its maiden voyage earlier this month.  This is a tourist (and local transit) project, ‘combining the new technology of solar power and a heritage train’.  Using bus technology, the solar panels on the train — on a sunny day — provide enough power for five or round-trips on this three-mile track.  In this case, Inhabitat accurately headlined: The world’s first 100% solar-powered train launches in Australia.  The system has 6.5kw of panels, a 77 kwh battery, and regenerative braking. Reportedly, it requires just 4 kwh for each leg.  Clearly, not everywhere is Australia with Australian sun.

Electrification of rail is real — with real benefits. And, increasingly, this is being married with the solar revolution. In India, we have a clear example of incremental moves toward this marriage with serious green-eye shade calculations showing the the cost-benefit relationship.  In Australia, we have a demonstration project (a tourist ‘plaything’ it might be termed) that shows, at least in some circumstances, transit can be handled primarily with its own panels.  In coming years, we should see an acceleration marrying these paths supporting an every cleaner transportation system globally.

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Tags: rail · solar · trains · transportation

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