The creators of the solar-powered locomotive of the future were aiming to set a Guinness record for speed last weekend, and that is more than just your ordinary attention-getting stunt. Demonstrating the functionality of PV panels on rail cars could help set the stage for solar power to knock diesel fuel out of the railroad business. No word yet on the official results, but solar is beginning to wiggle its way into a field dominated by fossil fuel.
The Solar Train Of The Future Hits The Tracks, With Only Solar Power
When people say “solar train,” they usually mean a battery-powered train charged by solar panels parked in a solar farm, such as the UK’s Riding Sunbeams project. In other words, the solar power is there, but it is not actually along for the ride.
Placing solar panels on the roof of the train itself is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish. A cute retro solar train began ferrying passengers on a six-kilometer round trip route in Byron, Australia back in 2017, but that’s the main extent of the activity so far, at least in terms of powering entire trains with sunlight.
It’s possible that the Byron train could go faster and farther with more solar panels, but integrating rooftop panels into the train’s 1940s-era styling was a key consideration that limits its ability to soak up energy from the sun.
The team behind the record-aspiring Solar Train are under no such constraints. Aesthetics have been tossed aside in favor of function, and solar panels are just about all there is to the Solar Train in its current 42-foot long iteration. Aside from a small space for the driver and a couple of passengers, all of the rail car’s flat surface is taken up by solar panels.
The goal for 2022 is to engineer an 80-foot version that can reach a top speed of 65 miles per hour on raw solar power alone.
As for that whether or not the Solar Train made the record books last weekend, check back with the The Press-Democrat of Sonoma County, California. They covered a test run of the Solar Train last Friday and their story is loaded with interesting details about the self-funded labor-of-love project, so maybe they’ll do a followup after the official results roll in.
Who Hearts Solar Power For The Locomotive Of The Future?
The Solar Train began as a DIY project in 2016, and now some heavy hitters in the US railway business are eyeballing the action.
Northwestern Pacific has undergone something of a transformation from its roots in the great age of the steam locomotion, back in 1869. The whole industry shifted into diesel by the 1930s, and in 2006 NWP embarked on a major renovation and expansion project in its California territory. The company began its modern era of service in 2011, right about the time when President Obama’s plans for climate action began to kick into gear.
The Obama Clean Power Plan got hung up in court, but meanwhile NWP kept expanding its network into Marin and Sonoma counties. While still relying on diesel, NWP touts the advantages of railways for freight transportation over diesel trucks.
“Railroads are a very efficient mode of transportation; steel wheels on steel rail give very little rolling resistance, therefor reducing overall fuel consumption, pollution, and greenhouse gasses. NWP takes this one step further by using low emission Tier 3 locomotives for goods movements along the hwy 101 corridor. Each railcar that NWP hauls can handle up to 220,000 pounds of payload, that’s more than 8 trucks off the busy highways and roads per railcar for each round trip!” NWP enthuses.
Interesting! They left out that bit about the labor advantage of railways over trucks. If and when the trucking industry shifts into battery electric and fuel cell technology, each truck is still going to need at least one driver, and the the truck driver shortage shows little sign of easing. Meanwhile, it’s a piece of cake for one engineer to manage a 100-car freight train, though rail safety regulators may have something to say about that.
Sierra Railroad & The Electric Train Of The Future
As of this writing NWP has not built much of a public profile in the clean power area, though positive press related to the Solar Train could convince the company to throw some clams into the innovation pot. NWP’s Sonoma County rail network has been hosting the train’s trial runs, and the activity will continue at least into 2022, when the Solar Train team will try for the 65 mph goal.
Sierra Railroad has staked out a somewhat more ambitious position. Last year the company nailed down a $4 million grant to build a “green” switcher locomotive powered by zero emission hydrogen fuel cells. That’s actually not very green at all, considering that the primary source of the global hydrogen supply is natural gas. This year, the California utility SoCalGas also hopped on board the project, which doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in a green makeover.
On the bright side, interest in the green hydrogen field is blowing up like a rocket to Mars. SoCalGas is among those dipping a toe in the power-to-gas field, which refers to systems that apply clean kilowatts from solar power, wind power, and other renewables to water, in order to release renewable hydrogen gas.
Here in the US, signs of a green makeover for the hydrogen economy are already brewing, and the activity is especially strong in sunny California and the sunny southwest, which could mean good things for solar developers.
In a couple of especially interesting developments in the western US, Texas is eyeballing a green hydrogen hub that leverages its considerable solar and wind assets, and Utah is helping to propel the natural gas-to-green-hydrogen turbine trend along with the hydrogen-as-storage model.
Onward & Upward For The Solar Powered Railway Of The Future
Meanwhile, solar power is already beginning to establish workhorse status in the railroad industry. One interesting example comes from the firm Herzog, which is pitching a solar-powered system for remotely unloading ballast cars, which are freight cars that can be unloaded by opening a vent at the bottom.
“During ballast distribution, our remotely operated hydraulically-powered doors provide easy opening and closing. The doors eliminate the need for manual manipulation/operation, and only a single operator is required for ballast distribution, increasing efficiency and safety for your employees,” Herzog explains.
The company Trina Solar also takes note that India has been deploying solar panels on trains to power fans and other equipment. While not replacing diesel entirely, the addition of solar power can make a significant difference.
“In India, the addition of solar PV panels to just one train is estimated to save 5,547 gallons of diesel every year, a savings equivalent to nearly $20,000. These panels do not yet propel the locomotive but merely power its fans, lights and comfort systems, underscoring the enormous opportunity to further curb operating expenses by switching to renewables,” says Trina.
Electrified railways have already made diesel fuel obsolete for many commuter lines, but there are still plenty of other opportunities for solar power to wiggle its way into the railways of the world.
Follow me on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.
Photo (screenshot): Solar power for a self-propelled rail car, courtesy of Solar Train.
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