The Riding Sunbeams assignment has received a government grant of £2.5m to power a section of the London-Eastbourne line with solar power. It's a key move major for the social enterprise which aims to make the stretch of track the world's first solar powered railway.
The engineering project was developed jointly by a charity in the climate sector, Possible and Community Energy South. This world-leading innovator aims to decarbonise rail networks through unsubsidised, direct-wire renewable solar energy generation. This in turn should deliver significant social impact for line-side communities, according to the Community Energy South website.
Using technology trialled in a foak project in Aldershot in 2019, the Riding Sunbeams project has demonstrated the feasibility of piping solar power direct to lineside equipment and bypassing the main grid. It's estimated that each MW of solar capacity will deliver annual savings of 245t/CO2e.
The investment boost from the Getting Building Fund will be used to build a 3.75MW community solar project based in Berwick, East Sussex. This will then feed into the Eastbourne-London track.
Riding Sunbeams executive director Ollie Pendered said the boost in funding showed that the decarbonisation of rail could be accelerated by the commercial viability of solar powered trains. This comes as the Campaign for Better Transport calls for a rolling programme of electrification for Britain's railways to meet 2050 carbon zero targets.
Pendered said that MW-scale solar directly connected to the track had the potential to open up the market for region-wide solar connections and deliver the commercial innovation needed to meet those ambitious targets with sustainable energy.
Riding Sunbeams is already in talks with Transport for Wales and Transport for London to roll out similar schemes across the country.
The funding was welcomed by the Cuckmere Community Solar project which received initial planning permission back in 2017. The project originally failed to get off the ground when the Feed-in Tariff subsidy scheme was axed by the government, making smaller scale renewable energy projects unfeasible.
Project leader Dr Alister Scott said he was glad that government funding would get the long planned solar project off the ground at last. The plant is expected to be generating by March 2022 when local community members and rail commuters will be given the opportunity to invest.
Dr Scott said the Riding Sunbeams project would allow rail users to have a genuine sense of ownership over low carbon rail solutions.
The electrification debate
Community solutions like Riding Sunbeams are part of the wider drive towards decarbonising the railways. Currently 38% of the network is electrified but more needs to be done to meet the government's ambitious 2050 targets.
Running trains using sustainable green electricity can boost journey times, decrease maintenance costs and cut C02 emissions compared to diesel. The UK network currently uses 648 million litres of diesel per year.
Hitachi rail proposed a stop gap solution earlier in the year with upgraded trains running on electric batteries that could run on lines that haven't undergone electrification.
Ambitious electrification plans were scrapped in the North in 2017 when they ran over time and over budget. Innovations like Riding Sunbeams and Hitachi battery operated trains could reinvigorate the rail network and decarbonise it fast.