The Indian Railways is not usually praised for any attributes one would associate with a rail network – cleanliness, punctuality, or general ease of travel – but its latest initiative may be welcomed by everyone, from environmentalists to passengers. For the first time in its 160 year history, the Indian Railways is set to tap solar power to provide electricity inside the coaches.
The Indian Railways — in partnership with the Indian Institute of Technology – Madras — has plans to use solar power equipment to supply electricity to air-conditioned coaches in some of the express trains in the country. Solar power will be used for internal lighting and air conditioning inside the coaches. IIT-Madras has been asked to develop a feasible model wherein solar power can be used on a moving train to power the AC coaches.
The Indian Railways is heavily dependent on diesel and grid electricity to power its trains. It is among the largest users of energy in the country and was supposed to be covered under India’s national-level energy efficiency cap-and-trade scheme. It was not covered under the first phase of the scheme, probably because any increase in operational costs would affect hundreds of million of passengers.
Diesel as well as coal prices have risen significantly in India over the last few years. As the cost of power generation from coal-based power projects increased over the last few years, the industrial sector bore the brunt of the tariff hikes as domestic users must be shielded (for several reasons, politics being among the major ones).
Being a nationalised service (and under political pressure), the railways could not increase passenger fare for several years which resulted in losses of millions of dollars. Now the railways plans to cut costs by reducing dependence on fossil fuels.
While there are examples of solar panel covered tunnels, those may not be very helpful in supplying power to AC coaches throughout the trains journey. The issue of consistent supply of power presents a major challenge which may require use of some kind of storage application; but inclusion of energy storage equipment could substantially increase the costs.
Indian Railways has invested in large-scale renewable energy projects in the recent past, especially wind energy projects, and has plans to increase this investment substantially in the near future. There were discussions in the use of biodiesel in locomotives, however no progress on the project has been reported in the recent past. The biofuels initiative also envisaged employing locals to look after bioenergy plantations along the railway tracks.