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India, Germany, Poland: All the ways in which countries are harnessing solar power for railways

Central Railway is rolling out 1,000 hectares of solar plants, after installing 135 kWp of solar last month.
Central Railway is rolling out 1,000 hectares of solar plants, after installing 135 kWp of solar last month. Copyright Central Railway/Twitter
Copyright Central Railway/Twitter
By Euronews Green
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As India 'solarises' its railways, here are the European countries realising the potential of sun-powered trains too.

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An Indian railway network is installing over 1,000 hectares worth of solar energy.

The Central Railway, one of 18 rail ‘zones’ in the country, has committed to developing 1 megawatt (MW) of solar units at 81 spots throughout its network.

It’s part of a growing trend of railways using their large land portfolios to go greener and help meet national renewable energy goals.

“To facilitate the installation of the solar plants, we have identified around 2,700 acres [1,093 hectares] of vacant or unused railway land,” explains Shivraj Manaspure, chief public relations officer for the railway.

“These locations hold immense potential for the development of solar power infrastructure and will help in further reducing the Indian railway’s carbon emissions.”

Central Railway has a pioneering track record; it operated the first passenger railway line in India 170 years ago. Now it has secured a tender for a 1MW capacity solar plant at a new electric locomotive shed at Ajni in Nagpur, the Times of India reports.

This takes the form of a power purchase agreement (PPA) - a contract drawn up between an electricity producer and a user. According to SolarPower Europe, more and more railway companies are signing PPAs across Europe too.

What are India’s solar railway plans?

Central Railways’ latest announcement is part of a “mega plan” by Indian Railways to install solar plants on vacant land. In 2020, the government agency stated it is targeting 20 gigawatts (GW, equal to one billion watts) of solar capacity by 2030.

‘Solarising’ railway stations will help India to become ‘Atma-Nirbhar’ - meaning self-reliant, according to the press release from the Ministry of Railways. By December 2023, it aims to achieve 100 per cent electrification.

The Mumbai-headquartered railway is also playing its part by installing solar rooftop panels at multiple stations. And it is looking to develop another 1MW solar plant in Pune through a PPA.

“This project signifies the railway’s commitment to expanding its solar energy footprint and fostering a greener future,” added Manaspure.

Where in Europe is leading the way on solar railways?

Across Europe it is becoming almost standard for railways to have some sort of PPA system in place to source renewable energy, says Bethany Meban, a spokesperson at SolarPower Europe.

French-Belgian high-speed train operator Thalys has been using 100 per cent green energy for all trains running through France, Belgium and Germany since 2020.

Deutsche-Bahn says it is the largest consumer of renewable power in Germany today, partly through its own solar plants. While PKP Polish Rails has the biggest rail ‘powerbank’ in Europe - a storage facility using excess traction energy to power around 1,500 regional and long-distance passenger and freight trains every month.

Belgium’s national rail company SNCB is raising the bar with rooftop solar, fixing 20,000 panels to its stations and buildings. And France’s SNCF has taken things a step further by launching a dedicated subsidiary to develop solar projects.

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Bankset's pioneering solar rails road design.Bankset Group International

“It's all very welcome, and maybe unsurprising,” says Meban. “Rail networks generally have a large land portfolio to work with, manage big rooftops, and must meet high energy demand.

“With the appeal of rail travel growing thanks to the green footprint of the train vs plane, renewable energy sourcing really supports the planet-friendly selling points.”

As well as grasping the ‘low hanging fruits’ of rail-side land, some forward-thinkers are experimenting with incorporating solar into the lines themselves. Swiss start-up Sun-Ways is rolling out panels “like carpets” onto the track near a station in western Switzerland.

Deutsche-Bahn has trialled a similar project with British company Bankset, attaching panels to the sleepers between tracks.

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