The first ever solar unit to directly supply a railway line with electricity has been put in place in England, paving the way for the world’s first solar-powered trains.

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The first ever solar unit to directly supply a railway line with electricity has been put in place in England. Image: Andy Aitchison / 1010 Climate Action

The 'First Light' pilot scheme on Network Rail’s Wessex route saw a 30kWp solar test unit with around 100 panels being connected to the railway line at a site in Aldershot, in order to supply renewable electricity to power the signalling and light. The research team behind the project, Riding Sunbeams, is also gathering electricity demand data from six potential community solar sites in the south of England. Putting this data together, they will work out how to plug in much larger solar arrays to power trains.

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Around 100 panels were connected to the railway line at a site in Aldershot. Image: Andy Aitchison / 1010 Climate Action

It is hoped that this pilot scheme will pave the way for a project capable of directly-powering the trains that use this route by the end of 2020. If successful, the scheme will prove that solar can safely bypass the grid to provide a direct supply of energy to UK railways’ traction systems, without disrupting train operations - something that has never been done before in the world.

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A pilot study showed that connecting solar panels directly to rail networks could meet a significant share of their electricity needs. Image: Andy Aitchison / 1010 Climate Action

The project was born out of an earlier study by 10:10 Climate Action and Imperial College London’s Energy Futures Lab. It showed that connecting solar panels directly to rail, tube and tram networks could meet a significant share of their electricity needs. It also found that this clean, renewable power could be supplied at a lower cost than electricity supplied via the grid today. The idea is that line-side communities and rail passengers will eventually have the chance to invest in these pioneering ‘solar traction farms,’ as Riding Sunbeams aims to encourage local investment in the schemes.

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Solar power could be supplied at a lower cost than electricity supplied via the grid today. Image: Andy Aitchison / 1010 Climate Action

The project is a collaboration between climate change charity 10:10 Climate Action, Community Energy South and Network Rail, alongside a wider consortium of specialist engineering and renewable energy consultants and academics. "We have ambitions to roll this technology out further across the network should this demonstrator project prove successful, so we can deliver a greener, better railway for our passengers and the wider public,” says Stuart Kistruck, director of route asset management for Network Rail’s Wessex Route.

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The pilot scheme on Network Rail’s Wessex route saw a 30kWp solar test unit with around 100 panels being connected to the railway line. Image: Andy Aitchison / 1010 Climate Action

To learn more about this project and the work of 10:10 Climate Action, please see its website here.

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