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Harnessing Solar Energy

4th December 2020

The future of rail travel is on track.

Network Rail have been carrying out pioneering solar energy work, making them on track to make huge carbon reductions.

The infrastructure agency have set themselves tough targets both to improve their own carbon footprint and to encourage others to do the same.

They’ve recently announced their own, science-based targets and aim to cut their carbon emissions, as well as work with their suppliers to ensure that 75% of them have science-based emission reduction targets too.

How will it work?

Network Rail stations, depots and offices are already powered by renewable energy and they’re trialling electric vehicles for their road fleet too. Transporting freight by rail is a greener method than carrying freight by road – each freight train is the equivalent to 76 lorries, and every tonne of freight carried by rail equates to a 76% cut in carbon emissions. Despite this, Britain’s rail network accounts for 1% of all energy used, making it the single biggest energy consumer in the UK.

Now the company are taking steps to move away from the National Grid and generate solar energy.

They’ve teamed up with social enterprise Riding Sunbeams to create a pilot scheme in Aldershot which feeds solar generated energy straight into the rail network.

Although it’s a small pilot, generating 1% of the power needed for a heavy freight locomotive, it proves it’s possible and is enough power for some of the simpler tasks on the line such as signalling and switching.

As mentioned above, some stations are already powered by solar generated energy, but the difference here is that the National Grid isn’t involved at all. Normally, energy generated by solar panels is fed into the Grid, and then pulled back in at a special, lower cost to compensate for the energy received. In this pilot, the energy goes straight into the rail network.

What’s next?

The amount of energy produced by the 100 solar panels at the Aldershot solar-farm is small, but has proven that it is possible – the UK’s railway infrastructure could theoretically be entirely powered by self-generated solar energy, while allowing the current trains used to continue functioning as usual. But if Network Rail gets their way, the operators who use their tracks will be taking steps towards a greener way of working too.

The next step for Network Rail is to expand the amount of solar energy collected and used, aiming for it to cover 10% of the energy needed to run the electrified rail routes, which are mostly located in the South East of England. Sites in the south of England are being assessed to see how much power the lines use and how to plug in the numbers of solar panels needed.

Riding Sunbeams has recently received over £2.5 million as part of the Getting Building Fund, which will be used to build and connect a 3.75MW solar energy plant to railways in East Sussex – the largest in the UK to date. It’s hoped that this energy plant will be up and running by March 2022.

People who live locally to the scheme or are rail commuters will be given the chance to invest in the plant and will get a return when Network Rail pays for the solar generated energy – at a cost which will still be lower than buying power from the National Grid, and is guaranteed to come from ‘clean’ sources.

The success of this project will provide a model for Network Rail to implement across the UK, while other organisations including Transport for Wales and Transport for London are also looking into using this new technology.

If you’re interested in reducing your carbon footprint or are planning to introduce more green energy sources and want to know how it could work for you in practice, get in touch with us on 01225 459564 or email enquiries@engain.com

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