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9 January 2020

Solar push key to making India’s railways 100% green

By Andries Wantenaar

Indian Railways has ambitious plans of becoming the world’s first 100% green railway network by 2029. With only 100 MW of solar installed on the rooftops of the networks’ buildings, the company will have to ramp up capacity installations rapidly through the 2020s to meet this target, and utility scale solar will probably have to make up a substantial shortfall in capacity.

 

Indian Railways, the state-owned company that runs the world’s 4th largest rail network, plans to become carbon-neutral by 2030 using renewable energy – largely solar power. Indian Railways accounts for about 2.4% of the country’s electricity consumption and has been increasing its power demand by about 5% year-on-year. In 2013, oil powered two-thirds of its trains, with electricity powering 33%. Currently the electrification stands at over 50%, with full electrification planned to occur before the end of 2022, by which time traction power demand will have risen to 4,000 MW. A plan was announced in 2018 for 5 GW of solar power generation to be brought online by 2025, drawn from a mixture of utility-scale and rooftop installations; that would meet 25% of Indian Railways power demand at that time.

Indian Railways owns a great deal of land and facilities – over 7,300 railway stations and 4,550 square kilometers of land; useful for developing widely distributed solar generation. Additional to utility-scale and rooftop installations, there will be more trains with integrated solar panels. Such retrofitting is often performed at the company’s own workshops and DEMU (Diesel–Electric Multiple Unit) Sheds. Indian Railways had been using solar panels mounted on trains to power internal functions such as lighting since 2015, but its first truly solar-powered train – a diesel-electric with sixteen 0.3 kW panels and a battery to run it for 72 hours – was inaugurally sent off from a Delhian station in July 2017. The next year, Guwahati Station became the first railway station to be exclusively powered by a 700kW rooftop solar installation.

Many Indian Railway solar projects were announced in 2015, which was also the year the first trial was run of a solar-powered train, but it was in 2017 that the shift to solar power got seriously underway. In February 2017, the Finance Minister Arun Jaitley declared that Indian Railway’s 7,300+ stations would come into receipt of solar power as part of a plan for 1,000 MW of solar capacity, with work already underway at 300 stations and 2,000 soon to follow. By late 2017 the company had several hundred MW of renewables installed, mostly solar with some wind, across a wide variety of locations. Multiple further projects in the 10 MW to 100 MW range had also been awarded.

In 2018, Railways Minister Piyush Goyal announced plans for another wave of tenders to reach 1,000 MW of solar and 200 MW of wind by 2020-2021. In January 2019, plans were announced for 4 GW of coal-fired electricity to be replaced by solar power, much of it to be developed in the land lying alongside the train tracks. In late 2019, the Railways Minister Piyush Goyal announced that 835 railway stations had completed solar rooftop installations, totaling 95.67 MW, with another 248.46 MW awarded, and 500 MW planned for 2021-2022. Using 1.2 GW of equipment from India’s supply chain, the value of this full procurement is estimated at around $2.25 billion.

As an example of the small-scale rooftop installations, Northern Railways – one of the 18 subdivisions of Indian Railways – floated a tender for 5 MW of solar in May 2019. That 5 MW consisted of 133 instances of 10 kW systems, and 677 instances of 5 kW systems, to be installed on D and E category railway stations.

The rapid rise of solar power in the Indian railways system is matched by the wider situation in India, which has the world’s lowest capital cost per MW for developing solar plants. Total Indian solar capacity increased by about 80% year-on-year for three years in a row from 2015 to 2018, and is now about 32 GW, soon to reach 10% of India’s total power generation.

However unlike the troubled background to much of the general Indian solar installations, the singular control of the Indian Railways means this project has been on track.