Reducing carbon emissions isn’t a matter of choice anymore, given the crisis that the world is facing on the environmental front. The likes of Donald Trump who thinks that climate change is bunkum are far and few today and even the cynics in India have witnessed the monsoon patterns changing drastically over the past two to three years. Now why is irrelevant, it is only about when and how!
India is at the forefront of cutting down our carbon footprint and each governmental agency has its task cut out in this regard. We all know how trains in the world evolved from coal-fired traction to diesel-powered ones and to electrical locomotives. Today, even power generation is considered anathema to the environment.
Which is why now there is talk of solar powered trains, especially post the launch of the first such train by the Indian Railways in 2017. Of course, there’s still a long way to go as it was only later that year that the world’s first fully solar-powered locomotive came on the radar in the form of the Byron Bay Railroad Company’s train in New South Wales, Australia.
Given that even the developed countries haven’t exactly been successful with solar powered models, there is a question mark on whether it would make a telling impact in a vast country like India with its widest of wide rail networks. Remember! There’s just one airport in the country that fully runs on solar power and that’s in Kochi. The rest of the airports, in spite of privatisation, continue to utilize traditional electric power.
The Progress Card
The life of the solar powered trains lies in the photovoltaic (PV) panels which are placed close to or on rail lines. These PV panels help in generating electricity to trigger a traction current that will be distributed to the grid. Of course, the Australian model is vastly different, so do please check out the link to the story above.
A report published in Railways Technology says the the idea of attaching solar panels to railway sleepers is also gaining considerable traction across the industry, as it potentially allows for solar PV to work on long routes at relatively lower costs.
Global initiatives have been taken to succeed in the direction with the mushrooming of companies like Bankset Group and Greenrail leading the way. The former is working on delivering the largest solar installation in the world. It is trying to expand the concept of solar-powered trains in countries as many as possible. If it stands successful with its experiment, it could prove to be a game changer in the sector as it could be extended to some 165 countries around the world and become the largest installation on the market.
Nationally, the Indian Railways Organization for Alternate Fuels (IROAF) has issued a tender for a two MW of rooftop solar systems for installation on the roof of each trailer coach of the diesel-electric multiple units (DEMU). The tender calls for 450 solar systems with a capacity of 4.5 kW each with the scope of work includes design, supply, modification, installation, testing and commissioning of the solar power generating systems.
The systems would have flexible solar panels including a rechargeable 110V/120 Ah lithium-ion (lithium iron phosphate) battery bank with a battery management system and other accessories. The project costs is estimated to be around Rs. 527 million with the IROAF providing 30 months for its completion.
On top of this, Railways Minister Piyush Goyal confirmed in the Parliament that his ministry planned to harness 500 MW of land-based solar power for traction. So, there is hardly a doubt that the government is serious about harnessing the sun’s rays to drive railway trains. The question is by when?
The Big Question
The pace of development is what should be a worrisome factor. In spite of talking big, the Railways hasn’t yet been able to discard the highly polluting diesel engines in favour of the eco-friendlier electric ones. This, despite the fact that the railways had set total electrification of its network as a millennial goal many moons ago.
The reason is quite simple. The project planning and implementation process is wrapped in red tape unlike in other countries where private initiative takes precedence and government just acts as a facilitator. There is also the issue of the technology itself being in its infancy and the companies that promote them aren’t exactly experts in the field… at least not just yet.
The Railways Technology article also cites the need to back up batteries as another challenge to solar-run trains. Trains scheduled to run on the San Salvador de Jujuy to La Quiaca line in Argentina will carry solar panels on the train roof and would get powered by batteries charged at the stations. Other projects like Riding Sunbeams suggest that railway networks could at best be partially solar, based on the funds and participation from the industry.
However, there’s no need for concern just yet. The fact remains that every new technology needs to go through a cycle of testing, innovation and implementation and solar powered trains are no exception. It would be only a matter of time before more passenger vehicles can capture solar energy and move the world forward on a cleaner and greener journey.