At its core, this is a pretty simple idea. Solar farms would be installed next to the train tracks - on train sheds, nearby fields and industrial buildings. These would not connect to the grid as a usual solar array might. Instead they’d power the railway directly to provide traction power for the trains.
But was this idea possible? In 2017, 10:10 brought together experts from the Energy Futures Lab at Imperial College London, Community Energy South, and electrical engineering specialists Turbo Power Systems to find out.
After extensive technical work we discovered that yes, solar PV can be installed by the railway line and connected directly to electrified track to provide traction power for trains. You can bypass the grid completely.
Our research found that solar traction power could provide around one tenth of the energy needed to power trains on the UK’s dc electrified routes every year. Not only that, but it also makes sense financially for solar farms and rail operators right now, with no need for public subsidy support. And there’s huge potential to make this happen in the UK, and around the world.
Community energy - where local people own the renewable energy and benefit from it - is at the heart of this work (the whole idea had come from them in the first place!). Our mission is to see community- and commuter-owned solar farms powering the railways - for the benefit of the railway routes, the communities that host them and of course the planet.
Since the initial eureka moment, we have been honing the technology with Network Rail to make is as safe and efficient as possible. We’ve also been working with community energy groups to conduct feasibility studies on six potential solar sites in the south east of England.