Decarbonising travel: the Dutch trains running on wind power

Solar and wind powered trains are gaining traction in Europe as a way to decarbonise railway lines and reduce pressure on the grid
Published: Mon 16 Jan 2017

Big news this month is that Dutch state-owned railway company NS’s electric trains now run entirely on wind power. Having teamed up with energy firm Eneco in 2015 with the aim of reducing its emissions, NS has now reached its target (a year early) of switching the sources of power for its trains to 100% renewables. Currently, one windmill running for an hour can power a train for 193km. The intention is to reduce the energy used per passenger by a further 35% by 2020 compared with 2005.

Not long after this announcement, Imperial College London and the climate change charity 10:10 announced their partnership, which aims to go one step further and that is to investigate the use of track-side solar panels to power trains, eventually bypassing the central power grid. 

The aim of the renewable traction power project is to research the viability of connecting solar panels directly to the train power lines, improving power management when it comes to energy hungry trains.

According to the university, the research team will be the first in the world to test the “completely unique” idea, which it says would 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.”

While this does create opportunities for small power generators, there is no reason why a forward-thinking utility cannot get involved to take advantage of additional revenue opportunities, eg.managing power, replacing or maintaining components, etc.  

Innovative thinking to decarbonise train lines 

Network Rail, the owner and infrastructure manager of most of the rail network in England, Scotland and Wales, is investing £50bn in electrifying the UK’s railways in a bid to decrease the number of trains running on diesel, cutting costs and greenhouse gas emissions at the same time.

Combining this effort with increased renewable energy generation in the UK could significantly decarbonise train lines by 2050, according to 10:10, but in many rural areas the electricity grid has reached its limit for both integrating distributed energy generation and supplying power to 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,” explains 10:10’s Leo Murray, who is leading the project. “I actually believe this represents a real opportunity for some innovative thinking.”

Initially the project will look at the feasibility of converting “third rail systems” which supply electricity through a power line running close to the ground and are used on approximately one third of the UK’s tracks. “Many railway lines run through areas with great potential for solar power but where existing electricity networks are hard to access,” says Tim Green, director of Energy Futures Lab at Imperial College London.

The university will collaborate on the technical aspects of the project with Turbo Power Systems – a firm that works on distribution and management of power in the railway sector – while 10:10 is leading on research looking at the size of the long-term power purchase agreement (PPA) market for directly connecting renewables to transport systems.

“I don’t think you get a better fit for PPA than a train line,” adds Murray. “A rural train line even more so, the project would open up many investment opportunities across the country and further afield.”

‘Green’ trains a global trend

A number of countries across the globe are looking into clean transportation, such as electric trains. Currently China has almost 112,000km of track. The country has more than doubled its electric train system within just the last decade. With its new climate commitment and its series of Five Year Plans that lay out future goals and then put together the methods to making them happen, this expansion is set to accelerate.

India has about 64,000km of track which is growing fast and we wrote recently about India’s rail service looking to become ‘cleaner’ through the deployment of hybrid locomotives.

The potential of clean electric trains

Renewable energy policy expert Tam Hunt, founder of a new start-up for solar-powered trains, highlights the sustainability of electric rail and says that the technology is not evolving fast enough to take advantage of the mammoth potential that exists. He explains that electric trains ramp up efficiency to an amazing level, at 2.5 times more efficient than an electric vehicle.

"Electric trains are so efficient that a single 300W solar panel can provide up to 11,000km of an individual’s commuting miles per year, or eight to 30km per day. The US national average, based on National Transportation Database data on the efficiency of the various US electric train systems, is about 6,500km per year for each 300W solar panel."

These impressive figures highlight the potential of clean electric trains and it will be innovative technology, private funding and government support that will bring development to the forefront where it belongs.