The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is urging governments and policymakers in ‘every country, every sector and every timeframe’1 to accelerate efforts to combat the climate crisis.
Image Credit: Swiss startup to install solar panels on railroad tracks (2023) Yale E360. Available at: https://e360.yale.edu/digest/switerzland-solar-railway
Thus, as the world comes to terms with the inevitability of shifting from fossil-based energy production to renewable energy generation, finding smart solutions to accommodate such a massive structural change is crucial to implementing a smooth energy transition.
The Swiss-based startup, Sun-Ways, has developed an innovative strategy for solar energy infrastructure that uses the space between railway tracks to deploy standard photovoltaic (PV) panels without impeding the movement of trains.2
The company claims its method meets both the requirements of railway safety standards and maintenance needs and can be installed and removed in quick succession while limiting the environmental and visual impact of solar technology.
Solar energy is considered the most abundant of renewable energy resources, and technological developments mean that the Sun’s energy can even be harnessed when weather conditions mean low light due to overcast skies.
Therefore, finding pioneering solar solutions could help generate and deliver more electricity to meet current demand.
Solar Panel Carpet
While the cost of manufacturing solar panels has seen a dramatic decline, installing standard PV panels requires large amounts of free and available space. This makes it difficult to build large installations or solar farms to generate sufficient amounts of energy to support local and national energy grids.
In Switzerland, over 4000 km of railway lines traverse the country, making up about 10% of the nation’s land area, meaning there is substantial space between the lines that could be utilized for Sun-Way’s innovative strategy.3
The company plans to use standard pre-assembled Swizz-made solar panels, which can be installed and removed with a piston-based mechanism. The one-meter-wide PV panels would fit easily between the train lines, which would be unrolled “like a carpet” using a train created by Scheuzer, a Swiss-based railway maintenance firm, according to Sun-Ways.
Using the space between railway lines for a solar paneled carpet is not a new concept, with two other initiatives led by Greenrail and Bankset Energy based in Italy and England, respectively, also currently testing solutions to use the space between rail lines for PV panel installation. However, Sun-Ways are the first to have a removable system for which it has applied for a patent in partnership with EPFL, the Swiss-Federal Technology Institute based in Lausanne.
It is this “removable” aspect of Sun-Way’s technology which sets it apart, as it allows for key and routine railway maintenance, such as rail grinding, to go ahead without obstruction. Therefore, the technology supplies an efficient and reliable energy source and allows general national rail infrastructure operations to continue business as usual.
The energy generated by Sun-Ways technology would be directed to the power grid to provide energy to residencies initially, while the scope to provide power to the rail network itself is limited and would require a different technological approach, the company says.
Addressing the Challenges
Sun-Ways must address some key concerns regarding its technology, such as preventing microcracks from developing in the panels as trains pass overhead while ensuring reflection and glare is limited and would not blind train drivers.
Sun-Ways points toward the use of resistant materials used in the PV panels and anti-glare paint and coatings to tackle such challenges.
The company’s development potential is based on addressing four central elements, which include focusing on various national renewable energy strategies around the globe, taking into account the lack of available space to install solar farms, the total distance and area railways traverse which is over 260,000 km in Europe and in excess of 1,000,000 worldwide, and the speed of installation to meet climate goals and strategies.3
Sun-Ways will first focus on implementing its technology in a pilot project which will roll out the panels across a section of the public network in Western Switzerland. However, the startup hopes that it can extend its network into Europe in the coming years focusing on nearby rail infrastructure in Germany, Austria, and Italy, and potentially the US and Asia in the future.