National Rail land ‘could produce 2.4GW of solar power’

Network Rail could save £30m on electricity costs by installing solar panels on unused trackside land, as well as cutting nearly 900 tonnes of CO2 emissions every year, according to a new report.

The report, from engineering consulting firm WSP, examines how National Rail assets could be utilised to add widespread long-term value while helping to tackle the current challenges faced by the UK’s rail network.

Electricity used to run trains comes at a huge cost for Network Rail – one that is set to increase as the company moves towards electric trains making up 75% of the fleet by 2020. Network Rail is expected to spend almost £360m a year on electricity until 2020 by which time its electricity use will have increased by 25% in real terms.

Conservative estimates by WSP say 50% of the land alongside 17,732km of track is suitable for solar panels. This would equate to the production of 2.44GW of electricity – almost half as much as is currently produced by solar panels in the UK as a whole. Network Rail proposes to buy 75% of the electricity to power its’ trains and for the rest to be sold to National Grid.

Investment opportunity

The report states: “The reality is that Network Rail is an enormous land owner, with around 122 hectares in England alone ,according to government land use statistics. Much of this land could potentially be used for solar panels – for example, on station roofs, above parking lots, in surplus land, at depots. This, combined with wind turbines on appropriate sites, could generate far more power and greater savings than we have already suggested.”

WSP views this as an opportunity for investment by a third party as Network Rail would be unable to cover the £2.9bn costs of installing the renewable project. It would buy 75% of the energy for 6p per kWh, down from the 8p per kWh it currently pays, thereby reducing its energy bill by £30m. First year returns for any potential investor are expected to be 8%, or £235m. Network Rail could then use the savings to fund improvements across the rail network. 

Secondly, investment at Second Tier stations could improve building’s energy efficiency, reducing substantial heat and light wastage. Biomass and Combined Heat and Power Systems (CHP), real-time energy monitoring and LED diodes would all be effective in reducing National Rails’ energy use.

Network Rail has committed to improving sustainability, reduce its environmental impact and reduce the cost of running the railway by 20% over the next five years. In January it ran a modified Class 379 Electrostar; the first battery-powered train on Britain’s network in 50 years as part of a larger project to roll out more efficient trains.

In the dawn of the New Year, edie delved into six transport ideas that take us beyond the internal combustion engine and into the 21st century. Read more here.

Lucinda Dann

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