Taking solar railways off the drawing board onto the tracks

Riding Sunbeams is our world leading project to connect solar panels directly into electrified rail routes to power the trains.

Plugging solar power directly into tracks to power trains has never been done, but it has huge potential to cut carbon emissions and running costs of metros, trams and railways in the UK and around the world.

For the last few years we’ve been working on making it a reality - and this summer will see the first set of solar panels plugged in!

The story so far

Back in 2015, 10:10 was helping community energy group Repower Balcombe in Sussex find a grid connection for their community-owned solar farm. It set technical director Tom Parker wondering: why couldn’t we plug the solar panels directly into the local electrified rail line?

Why not indeed? So in 2017, we brought together some experts to see if it would be possible to use small, community-owned solar farms built near railways to supply traction power (that’s the electricity the trains use to move) direct.

And turns out - yes, not only is it possible, but there’s huge potential. We found solar traction power could provide around one tenth of the energy needed to power trains on the UK’s dc electrified routes every year. And it makes sense financially right now, without the need for any public subsidy.

What are we up to now?

Ever since, we’ve been beavering away with Community Energy South to narrow down the best locations to build community solar farms to supply the rail network in the south of England. Community energy - where local people own the renewable energy and benefit from it - is at the heart of this idea. The Riding Sunbeams gang have done detailed feasibility studies on six sites, and they’ve all come out looking very positive.

We’ve also been honing the technology we need to connect the panels with the tracks to make is as safe and efficient as it has to be to allow us to connect to live railways.

You can read more detail in our progress report.

What’s next?

First Light

We’re now ready to take this idea off the drawing board and onto the tracks. This summer, all being well, we will connect the first ever solar traction array to the railway line between London and Weymouth!

This is just a pilot - with only about 100 solar panels. But the real-world data we collect will help us work out how to plug in much larger solar arrays in future.

If successful, this Riding Sunbeams: First Light project will prove that plugging solar directly into the UK railways can be done safely and without disrupting the trains. We’ll also be able to work out some of the legal and business side of things that will need to be in place to make this happen.

All that should pave the way for connecting the world’s first ever full-scale, community- and commuter-owned solar traction farm to the railways by 2020.

Green Valley Lines

We’re also working with Transport for Wales to build renewable energy into their plans to electrify the train lines north of Cardiff. That means our tech can work even better - we can find the very best places to install solar panels and actually build the plug-in points in those spots.

And because in Wales wind turbines are not banned (as they are in England), we’ll also be looking at the potential to use community wind turbines to power the trains.

Solar powered trains are moving full steam ahead(!). So keep an eye out for more info on what we’re up to and how you can help make it a reality.

10:10 is all about finding positive, practical solutions to tackle climate change. We’ve installed solar on schools, campaigned for better policy for renewables and looked for innovative ways for people to make the most of their local energy resources.

If you’d like to hear about our work, including all the latest updates about the Riding Sunbeams project, sign up now.

The Riding Sunbeams project is run by Riding Sunbeams Ltd, a new company owned by 10:10 and Community Energy South.

Photo: Marco Nürnberger, cc