Tag Archives: Trains

Cleaning up the US rail sector? Just fit batteries on trains

Electrification of trains, at least freight ones, is within reach and makes economic sense, according to a new study. Researchers argue that plummeting battery prices, increasing battery energy densities and access to cheap renewable electricity make battery-electric rail possible, using the United States as an initial case study. 

Image credit: Creative Commons

Greenhouse gas emissions have to be reduced by 45% by 2030 if we want to limit global warming to 1.5ºC, in line with the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. In order to do this, we must act on many different fronts, and the freight rail sector provides a unique opportunity for an aggressive short-term climate action, according to researchers from the University of Berkeley. 

The US freight rail sector transports more than any other rail system. It uses diesel fuel and it currently transports 40% of national freight – with a capacity expected to double by 2050. Without substantial changes, it would account for half the global diesel used in the freight rail sector by the same year, according to previous studies. 

Diesel freight trains are estimated to release about 35 million tons of CO2 per year, which produce sufficient air pollution to cause 1,000 premature deaths and $6.5 billion in health damage costs. They are still more fuel efficient than trucks but produce twice the air pollution because of less rigorous pollution controls in locomotives. 

“A rapid conversion of the freight-rail sector is not only technically feasible and cost-effective, it would bring immediate and lasting health and economic benefits to lower income communities,” Natalie Popovich, lead author of the study, said in a statement. “And it would provide a boost to our nation’s efforts to curb climate change.”

Tackling train’s emissions 

While many countries have transitioned to electric freight trains, that hasn’t been the case of the US. Its vast distances have so far made it tricky to build electrified lines over tracks. Still, there could be a simpler way forward, researchers believe. As they already have an electric motor, the US could retrofit the trains to be powered by batteries. 

In fact, the existing battery technology could power a train for 150 miles, which is the average daily distance traveled, according to the study. A freight train powered by batteries would use half the energy that a diesel train requires. And considering that battery prices are fast declining, they would also be more cost-competitive as well.

The researchers calculated the economics of owning, maintaining, and running a diesel freight trains versus a battery-powered one. Over 20 years, a diesel locomotive costs $5.8-11.8 million, while a battery-powered would cost $6.4-8 million. Battery prices were estimated at current market value (US$100 per kwh) but this would likely decrease soon as well.

The retrofitted trains would also have a dual-fuel capability, choosing between a battery or diesel usage – an advantage from fully electrifying the rail system. At the same time, battery-electric trains could be deployed as a clean backup power, increasing the resilience of the electric grid. In the past, diesel trains were used as power generators. 

“Conversion of the US freight rail sector to battery-electric would generate about 220 gigawatt-hours of mobile storage,” co-author Amol Phadke said in a statement. “Furthermore, these battery tender cars could be deployed during extreme events, such as during the recent catastrophic wildfires in California or the 2021 winter storm in Texas.”

The study was published in the journal Nature Energy.

India starts rolling out solar trains that might save millions of gallons of diesel

India’s getting serious about their green revolution, and they’re taking it step by step.

Now, that’s a sun roof. Image credits: Anil Kumar Chhatri/Indian Railways.

India, one of the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters (also expected to greatly increase its emissions in future years), is also one of the most ambitious countries when it comes to sustainable goals. India is already set to overachieve its Paris target, which is to lower the emissions intensity of GDP by 33%–35% by 2030. But not everything is looking great in India — not at all. Coal still generates over half of the country’s energy and it will take quite a while for renewables to catch up. India also ranks third in oil consumption, trailing behind the US and China. Oil guzzling trains definitely don’t help.

However, India has started experimenting with rooftop solar trains. While these trains will still be powered by diesel, a set of 16 solar panels will take over the lights, fans, and screens inside the train. If that doesn’t sound like much, Indian Railways estimates that a train with six solar-panelled coaches would save 21,000 liters of diesel every year. India runs 12,617 trains to carry over 23 million passengers daily, consuming approximately 2.6 billion liters of diesel a year. So if half of these trains would be fitted with panels, it could save up to 0.12 billion liters of diesel, or almost 5% of the total consumption. It’s not the biggest of step, but it’s definitely one in the right direction.

It makes economic sense too. Fitting will cost Rs9 lakh (13,990 USD) per coach and the fuel savings are Rs2 lakh (3,111 USD) per year per coach — so the payback time is 4.5 years, which is quite decent. That’s some rough maths, but by now, it seems quite clear that the payback time of these train solar panels will be comparable with regular, house-mounted panels. Of course, it will take quite a long time before a significant part of the Indian trains are fitted with panels.

Solar prices in India have plummeted, encouraging the development of such ample projects.

According to QZ, the rooftop solar system was developed by Noida-based Jakson Engineers, under the direction of the Indian Railways Organisation for Alternate Fuels (IROAF). Engineers found the task quite tricky.

“It is not an easy task to fit solar panels on the roof of train coaches that run at a speed of 80 km per hour. Our engineering skills were put to a real test during the execution of this rooftop solar project for Indian Railways,” Sundeep Gupta, vice-chairman and managing director of Jakson Engineers told the Business Standard newspaper.

Indian Railways have announced plans to reduce emissions on par with those of the country. They’ve set a goal of reduction in emissions intensity of 33% by 2030 from 2005 levels. That includes a 1 GW solar target announced in 2015. So far, they’ve achieved an installed capacity of about 37 MW of wind and 16 MW of solar across railway operations until March 2017. The Railways has also tendered close to 255 MW of rooftop solar projects, of which 80 MW has already been awarded. An additional 50 MW of land-based solar projects have already been awarded. All in all, things are slowly coming together. It is also expected that the 1 GW target would serve as a signal for financiers and solar developers to come and invest in the country. So far, it’s working pretty well: solar prices are already plummeting.

Elsewhere in the world, in the Netherlands, trains are already powered by renewable energy. Taking advantage of their own geography, the Dutch have focused more on wind rather than solar energy. As of January 2017, all their electric trains run 100% on wind energy.

Hydrogen-powered train to start making trips in Germany by the end of 2017

Last week, French company Alstom showcased the first hydrogen-powered passenger train in the world. The vehicle will begin real-world testing on one line in Germany in 2017.

Image credits Alstom.

Hydrogen fuel cell technology allows engineers to create powerful transportation vehicles that emit only water — condensed, or as steam. Now the tech has finally been used to create a working train. Named Coradia iLint, the vehicle was unveiled at InnoTrans, an annual trade show in Berlin last week.

This super-quiet passenger train holds a hydrogen fuel tank on the cars’ roof, supplying fuel cells that generate electrical energy for the engine. Alstom hopes that this system will replace Europe’s fleet of diesel-burning trains, which are still seeing heavy use across the continent despite wide-scale electrification projects.

In the last months of 2017, the train will start running on the Buxtehude-Bremervörde-Bremerhaven-Cuxhaven line in Lower Saxony. The German Federal Railway Authority Eisenbahn-Bundesamt will start testing in fall 2016 and is expected to release a report on the vehicle by end of 2017. While yet unapproved by the Eisenbahn-Bundesamt, Lower Saxony’s local transportation authority has ordered 14 trains of the type from Alstom.

The iLint is the first train to power along railroads through hydrogen cells alone, but the idea is about a decade old now. Former AT&T strategic planned Stan Thompson coined the term “hydrail” in 2004 to describe any rail vehicle that uses hydrogen fuel cells. There have been several prototype hydrails in the past, most notably in Japan.

Hopefully, now that we have a working, commercially successful example of a hydrail, the technology will gain traction much faster — on rails and roads alike.