climate change transport

Solar trains for India

Railways powered directly by trackside solar power are an ingenious idea that I’ve been keeping an eye on. Developed by the good folks at Possible and operating under the name Riding Sunbeams, the first trial projects are already running in the UK – a world first for directly solar powered trains.

Britain isn’t exactly famous for its weather, so if we can do it, solar trains ought to be an even better bet elsewhere. So I was interested to hear that the team are taking the idea to India, and their initial study suggests that 1 in 4 trains in India could run on solar power.

It’s an obvious partnership. Indian Railways (IR) is already committed to reducing its carbon footprint, and this summer they announced their plans to be net zero carbon by 2030. It’s an ambitious project. As far as I’m aware, nobody in the world is attempting to deliver a zero carbon railway at the scale or the pace that India has set. And solar will play a vital role.

One of the reasons why the direct connection would work well for Indian Railways is that electrification isn’t enough. Under normal circumstances, switching trains from diesel to electricity would lower emissions and pollution. Because India has so much coal on the grid, the switch to electricity would actually increase emissions. The only way for IR to electrify and decarbonise at the same time is to expand their own clean energy capacity. That’s exactly what they intend to do, with plans for a grand 20GW of solar power installed on unused railway company land.

Renewable energy for Indian trains is a strategy with many benefits. It would improve air quality. It would make a significant contribution to India’s overall emissions, with a zero carbon railway network cutting 5% of India’s emissions. And ultimately it will save IR money: reaching net zero by 2030 will save an estimated $2.3 billion a year in fuel costs.

For more details, see the report Riding Sunbeams in India. Now, where next for solar railways?

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