Project aims to establish feasibility of solar-powered rail

Victoria station, London.

Imperial College London and climate change charity 10:10 have teamed up to investigate the viability of using track-side solar panels to power trains, it was announced on 9 January.
Currently Network Rail is investing billions in electrifying the UK’s train lines. This combined with increased renewable energy generation means train travel could be significantly decarbonised by 2050. However in many rural areas the electricity grid has reached its limit in both integrating distributed energy generation and supplying power to the train companies.
“What is particularly galling is that peak generation from solar and peak demand from the trains more or less match but we can’t connect the two,” says Leo Murray of 10:10, who is leading the Renewable Traction project. “I actually believe this represents a real opportunity for some innovative thinking.”
The team’s plan is described as completely unique, and involves connecting solar panels directly to the lines which provide electricity to trains. This will bypass the electricity grid so that the panels can provide power precisely when needed most. Although this sounds quite easy it has so far not been attempted elsewhere, according to the group.
The work could have a wide impact with commercial applications on electrified rail networks all over the world. It would also open up thousands of new sites to small and medium scale renewable developments by removing the need to connect to the grid.
Initially the project – the Renewable Traction Power project – will look at the feasibility of converting “third rail systems”. These supply electricity to the locomotive through a power line running close to the ground. They have the advantage of matching the way electricity is supplied by solar panels as direct current and using a similar voltage to the rail network of 750V DC. This system is only used on about a third of the UK’s tracks but the team feels that keeping it simple to begin with will pay dividends in the long run.
For the technical aspects of the project Imperial researchers will collaborate with Turbo Power Systems (TPS). Proving the financial sustainability of the initiative will be the brief taken up by 10:10 and Community Energy South (CES).