The report by the charity 10:10 Climate Action and Imperial College London’s Energy Futures Lab claims a ‘significant share’ of rail, tube and tram network’s electricity needs could be met by connecting solar panels situated next to tracks and directly to the substations that power the rail system.
This would bypass the National Grid altogether and could supply around 10% of the energy needed to power trains, it said.
The report adds the biggest opportunity lies on the commuter rail network south of London.
It estimates if 200 small solar farms were installed alongside railway lines, they could provide 15% of the power needed to run trains across Kent and Sussex.
And analysis by project partners Community Energy South indicates that there are around 400 locations, which could be suitable for trackside solar panels.
The report also highlights the possibility of using solar energy on the London Underground and claims 6% of the power needed to run the Tube could be supplied directly by solar.
The team found more than 50 prospective sites in and around London, ranging from depot roofs and station car parks, which they claim could in theory host large enough solar arrays to connect to the Underground’s power system.
But the report said these sites will be more challenging to develop than rural locations.
In addition, other light rail and tram networks in London, Manchester, Birmingham, Sheffield, Blackpool, Nottingham, Edinburgh and Newcastle could also benefit from trackside solar panels, said the report.
For example, the report states Manchester Metrolink spends more than £7m each year on traction electricity and has routes running through former industrial areas with plenty of opportunities for solar PV on large roofs and brownfield sites.
Some 20% of the Merseyrail network in Liverpool could also be solar powered, according to the report’s authors.
‘Integrating renewable energy into the rail infrastructure would be a major step forward to reaching our goal of delivering a low carbon railway,’ said Network Rail’s chief of quality, health, safety and environment, Lisbeth Frømling.
‘As one of the largest energy consumers in the country we welcome this important research and the opportunity to collaborate with others to enable innovation. The results of this study are encouraging and it is exciting to think that the concept could become reality.’
Regarding the financing of such trackside projects, the report recommends the idea of turning them into community energy projects, which could be crowdfunded by commuters and railway works.
‘Being able to sell cheap electricity directly to our largest power consumer could throw a vital lifeline to the nation’s favourite energy source, and the plunging costs of solar mean that it should actually be cheaper to run trains on solar powered routes in the future,’ said 10:10 Climate Action’s director of strategy, Leo Murray.
‘We are particularly excited about bringing commuters together with local communities to crowdfund investment in the first wave of these pioneering new solar projects.’