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I’ve been thinking about renewable energy and trains lately. I mean, I have solar on my house for hot water and lots of sunny windows for passive solar heating. I advocate for solar pv, wind energy, geothermal and wave energy. I even drive a hybrid and have considered upgrading to electric. I write about renewable energy for all sorts of situations, but had never considered it for rail transport.

As I thought about it, I didn’t understand how it could possibly work, with my almost-nil knowledge of trains. The only thing I know about trains (aside from having traveled in them quite a bit the first 30 years of my life!) is that they are one of the most environmentally friendly modes of transportation. All mass transit is for the simple reason that it carries the most people and freight for the least amount of energy expended.

modern trains

photo: Aleksander Dragnes

Solar-powered transportation possibilities

One of the questions that came to me was how could you garner that much power for train travel? Aside from the obvious obstacles, like the government, funding and regulations, what does a renewable energy infrastructure look like, and how would it extend over thousands of miles?

It never occurred to me that trains could act like hybrid and electric cars with regenerative braking systems. When I brake in my car, power goes to the hybrid battery, which is then used to power the car at lower speeds. Regenerative braking and an electrified track tied to a grid powered by renewable energy sources answered my questions. I can’t imagine the vastness of a project this big, but it’s happening!

Renewable transportation in California

In California, there are plans for 800 miles of high-speed rail to connect the northern and southern parts of the state. At the same time, the state has passed a 33% Renewable Energy Portfolio, meaning 33% of the state’s energy must come from renewable energy.

One way to meet that demand, as well as the demand for more and better mass transit, eyes are on powering the new high-speed rail with renewable energy. The project will be completed by 2033 with electrified track. Trains with regenerative braking will put energy back into the grid that powers them. Solar panels may also be installed along the way for additional energy.

Sweden and energy efficient rail systems

Sweden, which is already very environmentally friendly, wanted to further reduce its carbon footprint. Like California, it looked to rail transport to reach that goal.

Much of the track was already electrified. That coupled with the numerous hydro and wind energy plants, it seems feasible to get all the power necessary from renewable energy. The task at hand was to electrify the remaining track, which has been done. Trains needed to be adapted to the new track and retrofit with regenerative braking systems.

Sweden Modern Trains

Photo: sebilden

On sections of the track that could not be electrified, Sweden is experimenting with biogas as fuel. They are further reaching their goal of a lower carbon footprint by purchasing new trains of eco-friendly and recyclable materials. Educating consumers about the environmental benefits of train travel is boosting ridership, too.

A train ride to a greener world

It’s possible to take an environmentally friendly method of transport and make it even more so! As people understand that train travel and transport are better for the environment, trains will get more popular. That in turn means more expansion and more chances to improve their efficiency and lower carbon footprints.

Ride the train whenever you can! Leave your polluting car at home! Supply and demand will only make the system better.

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Nan Fischer

Nan Fischer has been living and building green for over 35 years. Nan’s emphasis on the BuildDirect blog is about how to make your dollar stretch further, while also moving toward a more sustainable lifestyle, as well as upcoming and existing technology to help us live in an ecologically-friendly way. Nan also authors posts on the website of her seed business, sweetly seeds.