Electrical grids are inefficient and outdated. A partnership between Imperial College London and 10:10, a climate change organization, is exploring the possibility of installing solar panels along side railway lines and using them to power electric trains directly. Rather than feeding electricity from the panels back into the grid to be redistributed to the railway system, the idea of connecting trains directly to the solar panels would be far more efficient.

According to the university, the research team will be the first in the world to test the “completely unique” idea, which it said would have a “wide impact with commercial applications on electrified rail networks all over the world. It would also open up thousands of new sites to small and medium scale renewable developments by removing the need to connect to the grid.”

The British train authority, National Rail, is already investing heavily in increasing the number of trains in the UK that are powered  by electricity in order to curb costs and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the the railway system.

In many rural areas of the UK, the electrical grid has reached its limit for both integrating distributed energy generation and supplying power to train firms. “What is particularly galling is that peak generation from solar and peak demand from the trains more or less match but we can’t connect the two,” explained 10:10’s Leo Murray, who is leading the project. “I actually believe this represents a real opportunity for some innovative thinking.”

The project will start by studying how to convert existing third rail systems which supply electricity through an auxiliary rail running alongside the main rails. “Many railway lines run through areas with great potential for solar power but where existing electricity networks are hard to access,” explained professor Tim Green, director of Energy Futures Lab at Imperial College London.

The university will collaborate on the technical aspects of the project with Turbo Power Systems — a firm that works on distribution and management of power in the railway sector — while 10:10 is leading on research looking at the size of the long-term power purchase agreement (PPA) market for directly connecting renewables to transport systems. “I don’t think you get a better fit for PPA than a train line,” added Murray. “A rural train line even more so, the project would open up many investment opportunities across the country and further afield.”

Solar power is often best used in microgrids which provide electricity directly to the areas near where it is generated. Microgrids are especially important to rural areas and places where no grid infrastructure currently exists.

The research is spurred by news that as of the first of the year, every one of the trains operated by NS, the railway company owned by the government of the Netherlands, are now being powered entirely by wind energy. NS teamed up with energy firm Eneco in 2015 to develop strategies for reducing its emissions. The transition to using 100% renewables for all its trains occurred a year sooner then the original 2018 target date.