Here’s a riddle for you. Imagine a massive solar farm is built across the land of an entire country. It infiltrates communities and neighborhoods and is between roads, under highways, and through train tracks. The panels are behind schools and stores and meander between forests without causing any destruction.
Oh and one more thing, you can’t see them. At least not at first glance.
Where are the solar panels?
That’s the magic of Swiss startup Sun-Ways, a startup that slots removable solar panels in between the gaps in train tracks, enabling the double meaning of out of sight.
The panels would be installed and uninstalled for maintenance by a specially built train that unrolls them onto the track like a carpet. If snows, no problem. Sun-Ways is currently developing a system that melts snow or ice.
If installed across the entire railway network of the startup’s home country, Switzerland, Sun-Ways says the panels could produce one whole terawatt of energy. As the company puts it, that’s the equivalent of one trillion watts, or 30% of the consumption of all public transport companies in Switzerland or 2% of the country’s entire power demand, produced with no visual or environmental impact.
So why train tracks?
According to the company, the space between the rails “is large enough to place photovoltaic panels of standard size.” Sun-Ways says this doesn’t hinder the movement of trains or disturb sleepers on long-distance trips. Installation only takes a few hours and can be done at night when there are fewer trains operating, laying down one kilometer of panels in this timeframe. Each panel is outfitted with clamps that fasten them into place.
In the near future, Sun-Ways says electricity produced can be injected into the catenaries used for train traction in order to power the very trains that roll over them. But currently, the startup claims it can power homes or go right into the public electricity grid.
The idea would be revolutionary in Europe where 260,000 kilometers, or nearly 162,000 miles, of railways are laid out across the continent. This is just over a quarter of the railways across the entire world.
But again, why train tracks? What’s wrong with rooftop solar panels or fields of solar farms?
Well, solar farms, compared to rooftop installations, can be optimized for direct electricity transmission to the grid, whereas rooftop systems are much smaller scale, and are usually used for electrifying individual homes or buildings.
As the world transitions to renewable energy in order to ween ourselves off of fossil fuels, solar power is undeniably one of the most important technologies. While it has grown drastically in the last decade — historically traversing the 1,000 terawatt mark in 2021, up from 64 terawatts in 2011 — current solar generation needs to multiply by about seven by 2030 to reach critical energy goals needed to stave off the worst effects of climate change.
And yet, solar, the most recognizable renewable, still face blockades.
In the U.S. alone, 81 solar farms were rejected last year. This number goes up every year as more solar plants are planned and shot down largely because of aesthetics.
Most people don’t want solar panels in their backyards, as exemplified by this Feburary-rejected Scranton, Pennsylvania farm; a $120 million farm rejected in Goshen, Indiana, because residents were concerned about potential “property value, decreases” and the “visual effect of seeing solar arrays from their homes,” despite the region’s existing power infrastructure concerns; and this Ohio state law that went as far as to ban all large-scale wind and solar projects in ten counties.
Similar property value cases happened in Kansas, Maine, Texas, and Virginia.
As Reuters reports, rural landuse protests are the biggest hindrance to solar farms, and to be honest… they do require a large amount of land. Take the Solar Star project in California: the largest solar energy facility in America and one of the largest in the world. It consists of 1.7 million solar panels over 3,200 acres in northern Los Angeles. That’s the size of 142 football fields or 4 times the size of Central Park in NYC.
It produces an astounding 579 megawatts of energy, enough to power about 255,000 homes, and is sold to and distributed by California Edison. However the two largest fossil fuel plants in America — the coal and gas-firing plant, James H. Miller Jr., in Alabama, and the oil and gas-firing plant, West County Energy Center, in Florida — each produce thousands of times the electricity of Solar Star while using a fraction of the land.
West County Energy Center for example has a net energy generation of 20,327,004 megawatts while only occupying 220 acres of Palm Beach.
Even Solar Star recognizes the weirdness of the lack of solar despite the boom in recent years. “Solar Star was finished in 2015,” the company’s Scott Becker writes on its website in a blog post.
“Isn’t it odd that the United States hasn’t built anything bigger in the last four years?”
However, using untouched space from existing infrastructure can change the scales of the solar versus gas battle.
As Sun-Ways’ cofounder, Baptiste Danichert, calculates, 5,000 kilometers (3106 miles) of “solar rails” (which is the length of the Swiss railroad network) can generate 1 gigawatt of energy per year, or enough energy to power about 750,000 homes. That’s nearly triple the generation of Solar Star.
While the American public rail system leaves much to be desired, especially for the clean transportation agenda, there are about 160,141 miles of railroads for both transportation and shipping in the States. That’s almost equal to the rail present in Europe, with the Lone Star state alone having more than triple the rail of Switzerland, because of course, everything is bigger in Texas.
“It’s unused space,” Danichert told the publication Fast Company. “The lack of available space and high labor costs are obstacles to the development of this [solar] energy,” the startup writes on its website.
That’s why the Danichert and Sun-Ways founder, Joseph Scuder turned to rail, founding the company in 2021. Now in May 2023, the startup is installing its first pilot plant on a 300-food stretch of railway across the French border to show how cost-effective it can be.
With a mechanized system, Sun-Ways says the cost wouldn’t be too expensive compared to other solar projects. The lack of land needed already cuts the cost.
With a suite of local partners like electricity providers and public transport giants already in their corner, Sun-Ways believes their solution can be “one stone in the building of the global ecological and energy challenge.”
Believe it or not, other companies are experimenting with solar power railroads, including Greenrail, an Italian startup that turns old tires into railway sleepers that are also solar power stations. Right now it is also testing technology that generates electricity from the pressure of trains passing over the tracks.
Similarly, England’s Bankset Energy is electrifying railways. According to the company they are building the “world’s largest solar power plant network grid based on the railway infrastructure network.”
The difference between their product and Sun-Way’s is that Bankset uses a specialized panel that is built to fit the narrow wooden plants of railroads, which the company says is compatible with standard rails across continents from France, Germany, the UK, and Switzerland to the US, Mexico, Russia, and countries in South America and Asia.
It currently has demonstration sites in Saxony in Germany, Bristol in the UK, and Colorado in the US.
But according to Sun-Ways, the mechanized train that seamlessly lays down panels separates them from competitors. In addition to working on the snow and ice melt function, Sun-Ways is also brainstorming and building solutions to other potential issues.
What if the solar panels get dirty? Sun-Ways says passenger trains can be outfitted with brushes to remove dirt as they pass over the solar-paneled railways.
But isn’t it a fire hazard, as the International Union of Railway points out? Sun-Ways says built-in sensors will sure the panels function properly.
But what if light reflected off of panels blinds drivers? Not an issue, Sun-Ways says. Each panel is fully black and is fitted with an anti-reflection filter would reduce the risk to train drivers.
“The biggest challenge is not technological. What is needed is a change of mentality in the railway sector, an area that’s usually not very open to innovation,” Danichert told the publication Swissinfo.
“We do not claim to provide the solution to the global energy supply problem. We do, however, want to make a contribution.”