Solar panels are deployed “like carpet” on railway tracks in Switzerland.
Swiss start-up Sun-Ways is installing signs near Les Buttes train station in the west of the country in May, pending approval from the Federal Office of Transport.
As the climate crisis demands that we accelerate Europe’s energy transition, developers have seen new potential in unusual surfaces.
road sides, tanks And farms all find room 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 Federal Polytechnic School of Lausanne.
“That’s innovation,” co-founder Baptiste Danichert told the Swissinfo news site. And this is a crucial innovation since the railway tracks must be cleared from time to time for essential maintenance work.
How are solar panels added to tracks?
The Swiss company, based in Ecublens, in the west of the country, has devised a mechanical system to install its solar panels.
A train developed by the Swiss track maintenance company Scheuchzer will run along the rails, installing photovoltaic panels as it passes. It’s just “like an unrolling rug,” says Sun-Ways.
The specially designed train uses a piston mechanism to roll out the meter-wide panels, pre-assembled in a Swiss factory.
The electricity produced by the PV system will be injected into the electricity grid and used for electric houses as integrating it into rail operations would be a more complicated process.
How much energy could solar panels on railway lines produce?
The start-up has big ambitions for its eco-innovation. In theory, the panels could be deployed across the entire 5,317 kilometer Swiss rail network. The photovoltaic cells would cover an area the size of 760 football pitches.
Obviously, there would be no point in laying the solar carpet in tunnels.
Sun-Ways estimates that the national rail network could produce one terawatt hour (TWh) of solar energy per year, or about 2% of Swissthe total energy consumption.
Once its train leaves the station, the company wants to go transnational – expanding into Germany, Austria and Italy.
“There are more than a million kilometers of railway lines in the world,” Danichert told SWI Swissinfo.
“We believe that 50% of the world’s railways could be equipped with our system.
However, the company still has a lot to prove with its pilot project near Les Buttes. The International Union of Railways has expressed concern that the panels could suffer micro-cracking, lead to a higher risk of fires in green spaces and even distract train drivers with reflections.
Sun-Ways says its panels are tougher than conventional panels and may have an anti-glare filter to shield the eyes of train drivers.
Built-in sensors also ensure their proper functioning while brushes attached to the end of the trains could remove dirt from the surface of the panels.
Some have pointed out that ice and snowfall could prevent horizontal panels from being useful, but Sun-Ways has an answer for that as well. He’s working on a system to melt frozen precipitation.