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Switzerland may be world first to install solar panels on railway tracks

Solar panels may soon unroll along railway tracks 

Between Swiss railroad tracks, a startup may be soon rolling out solar panels like a carpet


Solar panels may soon be rolled out “like carpet” on railway tracks in Switzerland. Swiss start-up Sun-Ways is installing panels near Buttes train station in the west of the country in May, pending sign-off from the Federal Office of Transport.

It’s the first time a removable system has been developed for installing solar panels between railway tracks, and could revolutionize the whole railway system.

Potential in unusual surfaces

As the climate crisis demands that we speed up Europe’s energy transition, developers have been seeing new potential in unusual surfaces. Roadsides, reservoirs and farms are all finding space for solar systems. And Germany’s Deutsche Bahn is also experimenting with adding solar cells to railway sleepers. But Sun-Ways is the first to patent a removable system, with the help of EPFL, the Swiss federal technology institute in Lausanne. That is the innovation And it’s a crucial one since railway tracks need to be cleared from time to time for essential maintenance work.

In the transition to green(er) energy, the race is on to find physical space to install wind turbines, geothermal plants and solar panels. In Switzerland, local startup Sun-Ways is looking to train tracks. Turns out the space between two rails neatly fits standard photovoltaic panels.

Sun-Ways has patented a system that places photovoltaic panels between railway tracks, allowing trains to produce electricity without taking up any additional land.

Easy installation is pivotal

It’s not the first company to consider that space for photovoltaics, but its ease of installation makes this system stand out. Instead of placing panels individually, Sun-Ways links them together and rolls them out like a carpet. That doesn’t just make them faster and cheaper to install but also enables temporary removal when railroad companies need to perform regular track maintenance.

A specially designed train will unfurl the panels as it travels along the track.Sun-Ways. The train developed by Swiss track maintenance company Scheuchzer will travel along the rails, laying photovoltaic panels as it goes. It’s just “like an unrolling carpet”, says Sun-Ways. The specially designed train uses a piston mechanism to unfurl the one-metre-wide panels, pre-assembled at a Swiss factory.
Security is a priority, too: the panels feature an antireflective layer to reduce glare for train drivers. They can be kept clean by mounting brushes on trains that automatically sweep the panels when passing over.

How much energy could solar panels on railway lines produce

Pistons clamp the solar panels to the railway track.Sun-WaysThe start-up has big ambitions for its eco-innovation. In theory, panels could be rolled out across the entirety of Switzerland’s 5,317 kilometre-long railway network.
The photovoltaic cells would cover an area around the size of 760 football fields. Obviously, there’d be little point extending the solar carpet into tunnels.
Sun-Ways estimates the national rail network could produce one Terawatt-hour (TWh) of solar energy per year, equivalent to around 2 per cent of Switzerland’s total energy consumption.
Electricity produced by the PV system will be fed into the power grid and used to power homes as feeding it into railway operations would be a more complicated process.

Amazing potential, still to be proved

There are over a million kilometres of railway lines in the world and at Sun-Ways they believe that 50 per cent of the world’s railways could be equipped with their system.

The company still has a lot to prove with its pilot project near Buttes, however. The International Union of Railways has expressed concern that the panels could suffer micro-cracks, lead to a higher risk of fires in green areas and even distract train drivers with reflections.

Sun-Ways says its panels are more resistant than conventional ones and could have an anti-reflection filter to keep out of train drivers’ eyes. Built-in sensors also ensure they work properly while brushes attached to the end of trains could remove dirt from the surface of the panels.

Some have pointed out that ice and snowfall could stop the horizontal panels from being useful, but Sun-Ways has an answer for this too. It is working on a system to melt frozen precipitation.

sources: Euronews I Trendwatching

cover image: 

author: Barbara Marcotulli


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