GreenTech: Aboard The Sun Train

As lifelong fans of the locomotive, we’ve watched these last few weeks as trains have been shoved into the national limelight… looking on, often in horror, as one scandal around chemical spills and rickety, worn-out tracks after another has dominated talking points. It has been surreal, and we think it’s about to get more so. Now that the white-hot light of the media is trained on our trains, it’s time to discuss how the space is well overdue for some changes.

Luckily, those changes are already here and starting to take shape. It has been well over 100 years since we really started favoring trains, and in that time, they’ve been powered by a few different things. In the old days, we mostly used wood and coal. These days, we mostly use electric or diesel. That is… up until now. Swiss startup Sun-Ways is piloting the world’s first ever power generating solar panel “carpet” track. The project leverages space by erecting solar panels in the spaces between rail lines.

Basically, we’re talking about solar trains. Typically, when we’re picturing our sustainable future, we don’t immediately have a train in that picture, but we should. Trains, although going through a rough patch, are vital to our existence. Not only that, they’ll become more important as individual car ownership becomes more difficult, or outright falls out of favor. Solar-powered trains may eventually become a staple, so we want to get a jump on learning about them.

Now, trains are already cleaned up a bit compared to most other transport, but that’s only because plenty are already electric. But we can push further, and we must do better. While about 75% of trains globally are electrified, 25% still use dirty fuels. With solar, we can hammer into that number further. Solar-powered trains simply draw energy from the sun rather than the grid. These panels can be on top of the train, or next to it, either is fine.

Around The World

The idea of the solar train is picking up steam globally. In the UK, Siemens has won contracts to enable solar power rail and create green routes. Along with the University of York and British Solar Renewables, they’ll conduct a feasibility study to address issues holding back the implementation of global solar rail, and will look into onboard charging stations. Ultimately, the goal is to eliminate diesel trains.

In New Delhi, the metro aims to harness solar energy for rail systems to reduce their carbon footprint. To do this, metro systems, including civil structures, will be redesigned to meet DPRs (a type of green building certification) and ensure natural lighting and ventilation. Project leadership will explore the use of solar rooftop photo voltaic (SPV) power plants on office buildings, parking areas, staff quarters, station roofs, and others.

Back here at home, we have our own train powered directly by a multi-array solar project, The PATCO Speedline… also known as the PATCO High Speed Line. Operated by the Port Authority Transit Corporation (PATCO), this rapid transit route runs between Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Camden County, New Jersey. Along the route runs a 15-mile-long, high-speed commuter train powered by a robust solar portfolio, which is responsible for ferrying millions of souls a year.

This impressive feat is the result of the decision of the Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA) to commission the construction of a 22-MW solar portfolio across several sites in its New Jersey territory in 2018. In April of last year, the six carports and one rooftop array began commercial operations. Now, the PATCO Speedline is the first, and largest, in the Northeast United States drawing power directly from the rail line rather than being grid-tied.

In the end, to push the PATCO Speedline along its path, requires over 50,000 solar panels across seven sites. Think of all the electric trains we have… there’s no reason we can’t follow suit with those, at some point. In some places, diesel engines are already being ripped out and replaced with the proper electric innards… so we shall see if this is the future of rail. Come back next week, we’ll have more from the green tech space.