A little over 15,600 kilometers of railway network managed by the Ministry of Transport are distributed throughout Spain, around 17 times the distance that separates A Coruña and Cartagena in a straight line. Not bad if we think of it as a huge public transport network. And it’s not bad, of course, if we consider it as a blank canvas available to renewable energy. That is what they have just done in Switzerland, where there are already a dozen entities embarked on a photovoltaic project that aims to see how efficient it would be to convert the country’s railways into a large photovoltaic plant.
The approach is relatively simple. At least on paper. What they intend to do in Switzerland is to install directly between the rails of the tracks photovoltaic modules, pieces that can leave the factory assembled to be loaded on board a special train and then spread out on the ground like a gigantic carpet. If at any given time they had to be removed to, say, carry out maintenance work on the tracks, the pieces could be uninstalled.
To achieve this, the German medium PV-Magazine, which has advanced the news, specifies that the Sun-Ways company has already designed solar modules designed to be attached between the rails. The École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and Innosuisse, the Swiss agency that promotes innovation, also participated in the development of the concept. Another key leg of the project is the public transport company Transports publics Neuchâtelois (TransN), which will be in charge of building the solar installation. The objective would be to begin the installation this spring, around May.
A new use for a kilometric network
The project has an investment of 398,000 euros, which in a first phase will allow fifty modules to be deployed in a 100-meter section. The idea —Sun-Ways details to PV-Magazine— is to cover a section of track of ten kilometers. The available area would be around 10,000 square meters for which 5,000 modules are proposed. The forecasts that the company transfers go through an annual production of two gigawatt hours of solar energy with a production cost of 10 cents per kilowatt hour. When the first test section has been installed in Neuchâtel, the CSEM institute will be in charge of evaluate your resultsincluding the resistance of the modules.
What will the energy go to?
The electricity obtained with the pilot project will be injected into TransN red. In the future, however, the approach is more open and involves dumping energy into public electricity networks to supply homes and businesses, although Sun-Ways recognizes the possibilities that being able to use it directly in the railway electricity network would offer. “There are technical development projects trying to build an efficient transformer that makes it possible,” explains Sun Ways.
In any case, if the pilot succeeds, Switzerland could see how a new and interesting scenario opens up for the around 7,000 kilometers of railways that it adds, which could translate into the generation of up to 1TWh of solar energy. Europe also hosts a vast network.
Swiss not the first in rethinking the use of infrastructures or public spaces for the generation of electrical energy. The state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, in Germany, recently launched a program to encourage citizens to fix modules on their balconies, terraces and facades; France wants to fill its car parks with panels and in China they have been promoting an ambitious policy for some time with which they aspire to cover a significant percentage of roofs —especially in government buildings— with modules that promote renewable energy.
All of this, of course, without counting the projects that have been proposed, with greater or less success, to take advantage of the pavement or roadsides for power generation.
Although his proposal is ambitious, Switzerland is not the first to take notice of the potential of the pathways from the railway to photovoltaics. Years ago the British firm Bankset Energy already announced its desire to install panels on the sleepers and only a few months ago it was working with German Railways DB (Deusche Bahn) in the use of photovoltaic systems in the infrastructure of Saxony.
Images: Aleksandr Popov (Unsplash) and Bankset
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