Hampshire, a famously leafy region to the South of England, has found itself in the news this week for something unexpected: world-first innovation in solar-powered travel.
A crop of 100 or so solar panels have been installed on an unassuming patch of land near Aldershot, which will be used to ‘directly-power’ a stretch of train company Network Rail’s Wessex Route.
This means the sun’s energy will not mix with energy from the electricity grid, but bypass the generation of ‘dirty’ electricity altogether.
For the moment, the Guardian reports that the small solar farm will simply power the signals and lights along the route.
But it’s hoped that the innovation will be the first step towards a cleaner future, home to sun-powered trains from as soon as 2020.
This is not the first time solar has been mixed with rail lines: India has kitted out hundreds of trains with solar panels on their roofs, used to power on board lights and fans.
Nor is it the first time a company has used renewable or emission-less energy to move trains. Dutch railway company NS’ passenger trains are powered by wind energy, and Germany unveiled a hydrogen train last year — a method of transport that produces only steam and liquid water.
What’s new in the so-called ‘Renewable Traction Power Project’ is the direct use of the sun’s energy. Leo Murray, Director of Innovation at 10:10 Climate Action, the charity that worked closely with researchers from Imperial College London on the plan, said that linking the UK’s biggest electricity user, the railways, with solar power “looks like the start of the perfect relationship.”
The charity believes solar could power 20% of the Merseyrail network in Liverpool. It adds that there’s scope for expanding the programme to other major cities in the UK — including Manchester, Edinburgh and Glasgow, and to sun-heavy cities in countries like Spain, Mexico and India.
What’s also new is the focus on community ownership. Writing in The Guardian, Alice Bell, co-director at 10:10, said that the idea for external solar farms came from a community solar group in Sussex following a round of anti-fracking protests. The group decided they wanted local and community-owned energy, but were unable to add more solar to their grid, so wondered whether solar energy could power trains and train tracks directly.
While the idea eventually proved too complex for a small group of committed individuals to test and develop, 10:10 has pledged to maintain this link with ordinary people — saying public involvement is not just an “inefficiency”, or a “nice to have” that takes too much time and effort.
“The opposite is true, especially when it comes to climate action. It’s the public who are driving change, often despite the actions of policy makers,” she said.
“If it wasn’t for community energy groups coming up with this idea, pushing it forward and scoping out the places it could be utilised, solar trains would still be far more than a few years away.”