On the right track: the UK railway that runs on solar power

Riding Sunbeams. The very name has a fairy tale quality, and its aim of powering the UKs vast, sturdy railway network by the light of the sun, might quickly be mistaken for a fairy tale in itself.

A stretch of railway in Sussex will become the very first in the UK to be powered by neighborhood generated solar power. The scalable task could help decarbonise the network, while allowing communities to be part of the clean energy transition

But thanks to a mix of technical wizardry, large determination, and the backing of partners such as Thrive Renewables and the Friends Provident Foundation, Riding Sunbeams is anything but dream. After an effective pilot, its now poised for a broader roll-out, with community-owned energy business at its core.

How does it work?

An enthusiastic objective, and one thats much easier said than provided. First, Network Rail, which owns the tracks and has obligation for electrical power, had to be brought on board. As Riding Sunbeams first CEO, Ivan Stone, puts it: “to link our very first live demonstrator website at Aldershot we built an extremely collaborative relationship with Network Rail to demonstrate that we could fulfill the rightly strict technical and security requirements necessary for them to even think about connection to their network.”

Powering trains down the track utilizes a shedload of electricity– a demand set to increase as more of the rail network gets energized. Meanwhile, there is a growing number of passionate neighborhood solar tasks, introduced by people keen to motivate financial investment in generating green energy on their doorstep.

In order to be viable at a time when solar aids have been withdrawn, these tasks mostly require to offer their power direct to a user through a private-wire connection. Suitable customers, that is, ones based nearby, who have a high demand for power, arent most likely to go away and can therefore provide the possibility of foreseeable long-term need, arent always easy to come by. As an outcome, numerous such plans struggle to get off the ground.

Trains utilize a shedload of electrical energy– a need set to increase as more tracks are amazed. Image: JJ Jordan

However Stone had form on his side. He has a track record in providing major facilities tasks, consisting of rail and air. “I tend to joke in the team that Im the unreconstituted capitalist developer in the outfit”, he smiles.

Having somebody with that solid business background on board, together with the technical specialists that Stone and his team put together, helped offer Network Rails management self-confidence in the brand-new company.

This was boosted by the results of the pilot project at Aldershot, where Riding Sunbeams built a solar farm on waste ground next to the tracks and showed to the satisfaction of railway engineers that they could undoubtedly feed power into the rails grid efficiently and, most importantly, safely too. “We were literally powering the trains over a section of the rail network. And that was a world initially”, says Stone, happily.

However, some are well within range of the rail network. This truth brought a gleam to the eyes of environment modification charity, Possible (formerly 10:10), and Community Energy South, an umbrella group for community groups in southeast England. They got together, did some major technical research study and, convinced the idea was a goer, with the help of energy specialists from Imperial College and elsewhere, they combined to set up Riding Sunbeams.

We were actually powering the trains over a section of the rail network. And that was a world initially

Its aim: “to decarbonise rail traction networks through the advancement and connection of unsubsidised, direct-wire sustainable generation with considerable social effect for line-side communities.”

Powering up for success

The effective pilot opened an entire selection of possibilities. The trains are the UKs biggest single customer of electrical energy. Anything that can assist them decrease their need for grid power, conserve cash, and at the very same time help to meet their objectives of decarbonising their energy use, is excellent news for Network Rail. And what works for them might work for other power users, too. Riding Sunbeams and its community energy partners clearly had a market. Now, they required the wherewithal to exploit it.

As Colin Baines, the foundations financial investment engagement manager, says: “We understood it was a wonderful, innovative idea. But lots of individuals have those. The difference with Riding Sunbeams is that theyve got individuals who can make it a truth.”

This came thanks to Thrive Renewables, which specialises in financing renewable resource jobs. “Our method is twofold”, explains managing director Matthew Clayton. “We wish to present more eco-friendly capacity, to clean up the UKs energy system. And we wish to widen the ownership of renewables, to assist more individuals get involved straight in the transition to a zero-carbon economy.”

We have the potential to power 10 per cent of the rail network, says Stone. Image: Thrive Renewables

Riding Sunbeams ticked both boxes, and crucially, it had a sound service design behind it to do so. That interested fellow investor Friends Provident Foundation, too. They had at first supported the pilot scheme with a grant however have now followed up with a business investment.

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Riding Sunbeams first neighborhood partner to benefit straight will be the Cuckmere Community Solar Company in East Sussex. It will feed electricity from its 3.75 MW solar farm directly into the London to Eastbourne line. Its chair, Alister Scott, says that the “genius idea” of selling straight into the railway has made the solar farm viable for the first time.

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An additional shot in the arm has come from the UK Governments Getting Building Fund, which has just announced ₤ 2.5 million worth of financial investment.

But it isnt just the solid, renewables-based organization design that attracted both Baines and Clayton. They were likewise won over by the businesss commitment that neighborhoods ought to be at the heart of the energy supply and should gain from it. This commitment is, unusually for a business business, actually enshrined in Riding Sunbeams governing document.

We wish to expand the ownership of renewables, to assist more people get involved in the transition to a zero-carbon economy

” We are incredibly privileged to be the very first job to try this idea.”

Its a vision that Scott and his fellow pioneers in Sussex are delighted to be a part of. “The large intricacies and frightening scale of the climate emergency situation can quickly sink individuals into despondence”, he says, “but tasks like ours can actually provide individuals ownership of among the solutions, as shareholders, purchasing into a tidy local power station that recycles all profits into assisting the community.

” This is simply the start,” says Stone. He summons a vision of “lots of regional neighborhood solar farms, producing hundreds of megawatts”, and adds: “We have the prospective to power 10 percent of the rail network.” It might exceed solar, too; the company is already taking a look at powering trains in Wales through a mixture of community-owned solar, wind and battery plants.

Main image: Thrive Renewables

In order to be feasible at a time when solar subsidies have been withdrawn, these projects primarily require to offer their power direct to a user through a private-wire connection. Network Rail, which owns the tracks and has obligation for electrical power, had to be brought on board. “We were actually powering the trains over an area of the rail network. Anything that can help them decrease their requirement for grid power, save money, and at the same time assistance to fulfill their objectives of decarbonising their energy usage, is good news for Network Rail. It could go beyond solar, too; the business is currently looking at powering trains in Wales through a mix of community-owned solar, wind and battery plants.

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