Researchers are starting a new project to investigate the use of track-side solar panels to power trains.
Researchers from the Renewable Traction Power project by Imperial College London and climate change charity 10:10 believe the technology could be useful in rural areas where the electricity grid has reached its limit in both integrating distributed energy generation and supplying power to the train companies.
Consultant WSP said that a previous study had showed that installing solar panels alongside railway track in the UK could save Network Rail £30M and 895,000t of carbon a year.
“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,” said 10:10 director of strategy Leo Murray. “I actually believe this represents a real opportunity for some innovative thinking.”
The plan is to bypass the grid so that the solar panels are connected directly to the railway power lines, using the panels when they are needed most.
The project will start by looking at the feasibility of converting third rail systems, which account for a third of the UK’s tracks. It would mean the researchers could match the way electricity is supplied by solar panels as direct current (DC) and use a similar voltage to the rail network of 750V DC.
The advantage of the third rail system is that DC power from panels could go to DC lines, without having to convert to AC. Challenges arise as the third rail is often used for signalling, so additional power cannot interfere with this. How and when the solar power is sent to the rail also has to be investigated. These technical aspects of the project will be a collaboration between researchers at Imperial College London and Turbo Power Systems (TPS).
“Many railway lines run through areas with great potential for solar power but where existing electricity networks are hard to access,” said Imperial’s Energy Futures Lab director Tim Green. “I think that focusing on the basics of integrating distributed energy generators into a railway’s system with the third-rail network brings a lot of benefits.”
The Renewable Traction project will start at the beginning of February 2017. It is a collaboration between 10:10, Turbo Power Systems, Community Energy South and Energy Futures Lab. It is funded through Innovate UK’s Energy Game Changers programme. It will release the results of its feasibility study in late 2017.