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Pilot project pioneers solar-powered rail

If successful, the demonstrator project will prove that solar can safely bypass the grid to provide a direct supply of energy to UK railways’ traction systems.

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The solar rig is connected to the railway line in Aldershot
The solar rig is connected to the railway line in Aldershot

The social enterprise, Riding Sunbeams, has switched on the first ever solar array to directly supply a railway line with electricity. It aims to pave the way for the world’s first solar-powered trains.

 

By the end of 2020, Riding Sunbeams hopes to build and connect the world’s first ever full-scale community- and commuter-owned solar farm to UK railways.

 

Bypassing the grid

 

Riding Sunbeams’ First Light demonstrator project is a collaboration between climate change charity 10:10, Community Energy South and national rail infrastructure operator Network Rail, alongside a wider consortium of specialist engineering and renewable energy consultants and academics.

 

If successful, the innovative scheme will prove that solar can safely bypass the grid to provide a direct supply of energy to UK railways’ traction systems, without disrupting train operations, which Riding Sunbeams claims would be a world-first.

 

Made up of around 100 solar panels, the 30kWp solar test unit is connected to an ancillary transformer on the Wessex Route’s traction system, with energy from the array set to power signalling and lights.

 

The team is also gathering electricity demand data from six potential community solar sites in the south of England. Putting all this real-world data together, they will work out how to plug in much larger solar arrays to power trains.

“Helping to get the railways off fossil fuels in this way will cut running costs and benefit local communities at the same time as helping to tackle the climate crisis”

The solar rig is connected to the railway line at a site in Aldershot, where lineside communities like these and rail passengers will eventually have the chance to invest in pioneering ‘solar traction farms’, as Riding Sunbeams aim to encourage local investment in the schemes, as well as local community benefit funds.

 

“Matchmaking the UK’s biggest electricity user, the railways, with the nation’s favourite energy source, solar power, looks like the start of the perfect relationship,” said Leo Murray, director of Riding Sunbeams. “Helping to get the railways off fossil fuels in this way will cut running costs and benefit local communities at the same time as helping to tackle the climate crisis.”

 

Funded by the Department for Transport through the First of a Kind Round 2 competition, delivered by InnovateUK, the First Light project was born out of an earlier study by 10:10 Climate Action and Imperial College London’s Energy Futures Lab which showed that connecting solar panels directly to rail, tube and tram networks could meet a significant share of their electricity needs.

 

Crucially, the research also found that this clean, renewable power could be supplied at a lower cost than electricity supplied via the grid today, without the need for public subsidy.

 

Stuart Kistruck, director of route asset management for Network Rail’s Wessex Route, said: “We have ambitions to roll this technology out further across the network should this demonstrator project prove successful so we can deliver a greener, better railway for our passengers and the wider public.”

 

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