In a world first, a solar farm is directly powering a UK railway

In a world first, a solar farm is directly powering a UK railway
Innovation

A UK rail line is now the first in the world to be powered directly by a solar farm, after a trackside 30 kilowatt installation went online Friday near Aldershot, powering signals and lights on Network Rail’s Wessex route, according to The Guardian. If the pilot program is successful, a larger solar farm could be built to power the trains themselves as early as next year. 

The UK government is aiming to eliminate diesel trains by 2040, in order to reduce long-term costs, pollution, and carbon emissions. The new project is one of many efforts by Network Rail to avoid using diesel fuel. They’ve earmarked billions of pounds to convert their system to electric rail lines. 

While there are a number of UK train stations already running on solar, such as Blackfriars in London, the new project is the first time a solar farm will plug directly into the railway, bypassing the electrical grid entirely. 

Plans to electrify the UK rail system have faltered in recent years due to costs. But as solar power becomes cheaper, solar farms like the new project could offer a more cost-effective source of electricity. 

Two years ago, researchers with Imperial College London and 10:10 Climate Action began investigating whether bypassing the electrical grid could make solar power more efficient for use in railways. The project, called Riding Sunbeams, was awarded funding from the Department of Transport. 

The team now says that solar energy could power 20 percent of Liverpool’s Merseyrail network, and 15 percent of commuter lines in Kent, Sussex, and Wessex. Trams in London, Manchester, Nottingham, Edinburgh, and Glasgow could eventually use solar power as well. 

“We have ambitions to roll this technology out further across the network should this demonstrator project prove successful, so we can deliver a greener, better railway for our passengers and the wider public,” said Network Rail’s Wessex Route director, Stuart Kistruck. 

By 2020, Riding Sunbeams hopes to build the world’s first community owned solar farm and connect it directly to the UK rail system. 

In India, 250 trains are already running with solar panels directly attached their roofs. But the added weight from the panels means these trains require more energy to run. India is now also exploring trackside solar farms as an alternative. 

According to Riding Sunbeams Director Leo Murray:

“Matchmaking the UK’s biggest electricity user, the railways, with the nation’s favorite energy source, solar power, looks like the start of the perfect relationship.”

Photo by Thomas R Machnitzki (thomasmachnitzki.com) [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)]

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