Electric railways could be powered directly by subsidy-free solar, new report finds


  • 15% of the commuter rail network across Kent, Sussex and Wessex could be directly powered by track-connected solar PV arrays

  • 6% of the London Underground’s energy demand - equivalent to half the electricity used by trains on the Piccadilly line - could be supplied directly by solar.

  • 20% of the Merseyrail network in Liverpool could also be solar powered.

  • Electric railways closer to the equator could run entirely on solar power, without having to rely on local power grids.

Connecting solar panels directly to rail, tube and tram networks could meet a significant share of their electricity needs, suggests a report published today by the climate change charity 10:10 and Imperial College London’s Energy Futures Lab.

The report’s authors investigated the potential for using bespoke new power electronics to connect solar panels directly to the substations that provide power to the rail system. This approach could bypass the electricity grid altogether. The renewable traction power feasibility study found that track-connected solar arrays and integrated energy storage could supply around 10% of the energy needed to power trains on the UK’s direct current (DC) electrified routes each year. Crucially, the research found that this clean, renewable power could be supplied at a lower cost than electricity supplied via the grid today.

The biggest opportunity identified in the study is on the commuter rail network south of London. If 200 small solar farms were installed alongside railway lines they could provide 15% of the power needed to run trains on these routes. Analysis by project partners Community Energy South indicates that there are around 400 locations which should be suitable for solar traction projects in the region.

Assessing the potential of the technology on the London Underground, 10:10 found that 6% of the power needed to run the tube could be supplied directly by solar - the equivalent of half the electricity used by trains on the Piccadilly line. The team scoped more than 50 prospective sites in and around London, ranging from derelict land to train depot roofs and station car parks, which could in theory host large enough solar arrays to connect to the Tube’s traction system. However, these sites will be more challenging to develop than rural solar projects.

The research also found that, globally, the potential for direct solar traction power is very promising. In countries such as India with more consistent year-round sunshine, new electrified rail routes could be powered exclusively by solar and battery storage without depending on local grids.

The project partners are now seeking funding to develop a prototype for the new power electronics needed, and to prove the concept with around six to ten community- and commuter-owned pilot projects. These will be in selected locations along rail lines in the South East. Network Rail is Britain’s single largest purchaser of electricity and the team believe the approach can provide a new and exciting route to market for subsidy-free solar energy in the UK.

Leo Murray, Director of strategy at 10:10 Climate Action said:

“We are proud to be contributing to the kind of innovation now needed to support solar in the UK. Being able to sell cheap electricity directly to our largest power consumer could throw a vital lifeline to the nation’s favourite energy source, and the plunging costs of solar mean that it should actually be cheaper to run trains on solar powered routes in the future.

We are particularly excited about bringing commuters together with local communities to crowdfund investment in the first wave of these pioneering new solar projects.”

Professor Tim Green, Director at Energy Futures Lab said:

“I believe that decarbonising our transport sector is key to meeting the UK’s climate targets. The Renewable Traction Power project demonstrates that we can harness solar to make this a reality for our train network. I think that this project, with partners from industry, non-governmental organisations and academia, demonstrates that the best way to tackle many of the issues we face is through collaboration and leveraging expertise.”

Peter McNaught, Head of Asset Operations at London Underground said:

"Improving London’s air quality and reducing our impact on the environment are key elements of the Mayor’s Transport Strategy. We are constantly looking for ways to deliver our services in the most efficient and technologically-advanced way possible, and this report broadens our knowledge of how we could potentially use solar power to help run the Tube in the future.”

Lisbeth Frømling, Chief of Quality, Health, Safety and Environment at Network Rail, said:

“Integrating renewable energy into the rail infrastructure would be a major step forward to reaching our goal of delivering a low carbon railway. As one of the largest energy consumers in the country we welcome this important research and the opportunity to collaborate with others to enable innovation. The results of this study are encouraging and it is exciting to think that the concept could become reality.”

Ollie Pendered, Chairman of Community Energy South, said:

“Connecting renewable energy to the rail network is a real positive message for our local communities. Our community energy model allows us to invite local people to invest in these renewable energy projects and in doing so create local social benefits and encourage low carbon communities.”


Download full report: http://files.1010global.org/documents/Riding_Sunbeams_1010.pdf

Images: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/l6f7l99tpy3u56o/AABTUmb0V8zU0asiMIH9CxOBa?dl=0


For further information and requests for interviews: Daniel Jones, press and profile officer, daniel.jones@1010uk.org 0207 388 6688.

Notes to editors:

  • 10:10 Climate Action is a UK based charity that brings people together to take positive, practical action on climate change. We engage citizens and communities in finding solutions that benefit the climate as well as improving people’s lives today.

  • Energy Futures Lab is an institute of Imperial College London founded in 2005 to develop multidisciplinary, cross-faculty collaborations to tackle the broad range of energy challenges that the world faces. The institute is a small team of dedicated professionals that assists in building connections, coordinating projects and highlighting successes at the College.

  • Community Energy South was established in 2013 as an umbrella organisation and regional hub enabling its members (local community energy groups and community organisations) to grow as sustainable low carbon businesses in the South East of England.

  • Turbo Power Systems acted as specialist contractors to the study. TPS specialise in the design and manufacture of auxiliary power converters and battery chargers for the rail industry and distributed generation systems.

  • The Renewable Traction Power feasibility study was funded by Innovate UK, the UK’s innovation agency, under the Energy Game Changers competition. 10:10 is believed to be the first registered charity ever to receive Innovate UK funding.

  • Network Rail is the UK’s biggest electricity consumer, purchasing nearly 1% of the UK’s national electricity demand to power trains.

  • The London Underground uses 1.3TWh of electricity each year, and is London’s biggest electricity consumer.

  • Around one third of the UK’s electrified railways use direct current (DC) traction power, usually via a third rail, with the remainder using the alternating current (AC) system.

  • The Riding Sunbeams report will be launched at an event at the London Transport Museum on the evening of the 6th December. TV historian and rail enthusiast Dan Snow is introducing, with comments from Climate Change Minister Claire Perry and Wendi Wheeler Energy & Carbon Strategy Manager