The Swiss company Sun-Ways has developed a pilot project aimed at integrating solar modules on railway tracks. Thanks to an innovative automatic installation system, the panels will soon be installed in a first test phase.
The initial system installed on one of the stretches of track owned by Swiss rail operator Transports Publics Neuchâtelois SA is scheduled to be operational in May of this year. It is meant to demonstrate the system’s feasibility and efficiency before making the leap to more kilometers of rail network.
Sun-Ways believes that the space between the rails is large enough to place standard-size photovoltaic panels without them hindering the movement of trains. The panels they would use are not very innovative; they would be panels between 1000 mm x 1700 mm.
The biggest challenge is not technological. What is needed is a change of mentality in the railway sector.Baptiste Danichert, Sunw-Ways cofounder
The key to this project is the new system of mechanically deployable panels. The solar modules are placed in a chain as if it were a carpet from the train to the tracks. To develop this mechanism, the company has been assisted by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) and the Swiss innovation agency Innosuisse.
The design allows the string of photovoltaic panels to be pre-assembled in the factory and then placed on the tracks from a special train. In addition, it is a reversible mechanism, the panels are removed as easily as they were laid when the train tracks need to be cleared for maintenance or other actions. “The biggest challenge is not technological,” Baptiste Danichert, Sunw-Ways cofounder told Swiss Info. “What is needed is a change of mentality in the railway sector, an area that’s usually not very open to innovation.”
This is important, as railway tracks need to be overhauled several times a year with heavy work such as tamping or clearing ballast clogs or straightening rails. In addition, this automatic technology facilitates very fast installation: it has been calculated that for the installation of 1,000 m2 of these plates, equivalent to one kilometer of track, only one hour of work is needed with this technology.
The Sun-Ways fastening system can exert a force of up to 10 kN on each rail, i.e. a thrust of almost 1,000 kg. In addition, the sensors make it possible to monitor the proper functioning of the system in real time and send alarm signals in the event of any failure.
Once installed and in operation, the electricity generated by the plates can be injected directly into the traction catenaries of trains, although at the moment the project does not consider this option. It is also possible to feed the energy into train traction.
The project raises high hopes in Switzerland to be able to cover the 7,000 kilometers of railway network in its territory. This could provide the generation of up to 1TWh of solar-generated electricity, equivalent to 30% of the consumption of all public transport companies in Switzerland.
Sun-Ways has pointed out that the railway network of around 260,000 kilometers across Europe could be a great opportunity. Investments from Europe and the United States have already been approached. The technical development is almost complete and with the necessary approvals they expect to install hundreds of kilometers in Switzerland by 2025 and by 2030 in Europe.