• Could Solar Panels be Fitted to Railway Tracks?

Fuel for Thought

Could Solar Panels be Fitted to Railway Tracks?

Mar 23 2023

The potential for solar panels on railway tracks is gaining traction as innovative solutions to the climate crisis are being explored. Swiss start-up Sun-Ways is leading the charge, having developed a removable solar panel system for installation on railway tracks. With the global push for a faster transition to renewable energy sources, unconventional spaces are being considered for solar panel installations. Roadsides, reservoirs, and farms have already found room for solar energy systems, while Germany's Deutsche Bahn is experimenting with incorporating solar cells into railway sleepers. 

Sun-Ways' collaboration with EPFL, the Swiss federal technology institute in Lausanne, has resulted in the first patented removable solar panel system designed specifically for railway tracks. Co-founder Baptiste Danichert emphasizes the importance of this innovation, as railway tracks must be periodically cleared for essential maintenance work. 

The installation process for the solar panels involves a specially designed train developed by Swiss track maintenance company Scheuchzer. This train travels along the rails, laying photovoltaic panels as it goes, akin to unrolling a carpet. A piston mechanism is used to unfurl the one-meter-wide panels, which are pre-assembled at a Swiss factory. 

The electricity generated by the photovoltaic system will be fed into the power grid and used to power homes, as integrating it directly into railway operations would be more complex. The solar panels on railway lines could potentially produce a significant amount of energy. Sun-Ways envisions that their solar panels could be installed across Switzerland's entire 5,317-kilometer-long railway network, covering an area equivalent to around 760 football fields. However, solar panels would not be extended into tunnels. 

According to Sun-Ways' estimates, the national rail network could generate one Terawatt-hour (TWh) of solar energy per year, accounting for approximately 2% of Switzerland's total energy consumption. The company aims to expand its operations beyond Switzerland and into Germany, Austria, and Italy. Danichert believes that their system could be adapted to cover 50% of the world's railways, which span over a million kilometres. 

However, there are challenges to overcome with this pilot project near Buttes. The International Union of Railways has expressed concerns about potential micro-cracks in the panels, increased fire risk in green areas, and possible distraction of train drivers due to reflections. In response, Sun-Ways asserts that their panels are more resistant than conventional ones and could be fitted with an anti-reflection filter to minimize distractions for train drivers. 

The company has also incorporated built-in sensors to ensure the panels function properly, and brushes attached to the end of trains could be used to clean dirt from the surface of the panels. Additionally, Sun-Ways is developing a system to address concerns about ice and snowfall obstructing the horizontal panels by melting frozen precipitation

In conclusion, the concept of fitting solar panels to railway tracks holds significant potential for renewable energy generation. Sun-Ways' removable solar panel system represents a ground-breaking innovation in the field, paving the way for further exploration and development. Despite the challenges ahead, this pilot project could become a game-changer in the renewable energy sector and contribute to global efforts to combat climate change

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