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Researchers to investigate track-side solar power for trains


The Renewable Traction Power project will look at how to feed power directly into the third rail from solar.

Imperial College London and renewable energy charity 10:10 are to research the possibility of using track-side solar panels to power trains.

Network Rail is investing billions in electrifying the UK’s train lines, this combined with increased renewable energy generation means train travel could be significantly decarbonised by 2050. However, in many rural areas the electricity grid has reached its limit in both integrating distributed energy generation and supplying power to the train companies.

“What is particularly galling is that peak generation from solar and peak demand from the trains more or less match but we can’t connect the two,” said Leo Murray of 10:10, who is leading the Renewable Traction Power project. “I actually believe this represents a real opportunity for some innovative thinking.”

The researchers plan to connect solar panels directly to the lines which provide electricity to trains. This will bypass the electricity grid so that the panels can provide power precisely when needed most. According to Imperial College they are the first to explore this solution in the world.

Initially the project will look at the feasibility of converting “third rail systems”, which supply electricity through a power line running close to the ground.

The team said that the work could have a wide impact with commercial applications on electrified rail networks all over the world. It would also open up thousands of new sites to small and medium scale renewable developments by removing the need to connect to the grid.

“Many railway lines run through areas with great potential for solar power but where existing electricity networks are hard to access,” said Professor Tim Green, director of Energy Futures Lab at Imperial College London. “I think that focusing on the basics of integrating distributed energy generators into a railway’s system with the third-rail network brings a lot of benefits.”

Technical challenges include ensuring that signalling is not affected when additional power supplies are incorporated into the third rail traction supply. There will also be issues around safety and integration of a secondary power source and managing how and when the solar power is being sent to the third rail.

These technical aspects of the project will be explored in a collaboration between researchers at Imperial College London and engineering firm Turbo Power Systems (TPS).

Meanwhile, renewable energy charity 10:10 and Community Energy South (CES) will work to prove the financial sustainability of the solar systems.

The Renewable Traction project starts next month and the results of their feasibility study will be released in late 2017.


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