IISc Scientists submit Theoretical Study on Solar Powered Trains to save IR from Fuel Burden

300px-Indian_Institute_of_Science_Logo.svgबेंगलूर Bangalore (SBC): Scientists have asked the railways to consider installing rooftop solar power panels on train coaches to meet their electricity needs and curb the country’s diesel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions.

Researchers from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, have sent their proposal to the Rail Coach Factory at Kapurthala, Punjab, after showing through a theoretical study that solar panels can save up to 90,000 litres of diesel per rake per year.

They have estimated that a single rake — made up of five air-conditioned coaches, 12 other coaches, a pantry car and two power cars — relying on rooftop solar panels and making 188 forty-hour trips during a year could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 239 tonnes.

Their study has indicated that the additional cost of the solar panels could be recovered within three years.

“Given our huge oil imports, every possible option to reduce dependence on oil must be explored — this is one such option,” Jayaraman Srinivasan, professor at the Divecha Centre for Climate Change at the IISc and a co-author of the study, told.

The study, accepted for publication in the journal Current Science, published by the Indian Academy of Sciences, examined the feasibility of installing solar photovoltaic panels that convert sunlight into electricity on a type of rail coach produced at the RCF, Kapurthala.

While the train coaches would be pulled by conventional diesel-run power cars, the solar panels are intended to provide all the internal electricity needs for lights and fans on both AC and non-AC coaches.

“The cost of solar photovoltaic panels has rapidly come down — we’re in a period of time when this idea can be tested for economic viability,” said Sheela Ramasesha, a materials scientist at the Divecha Centre who led the study.

The researchers relied on estimates by the new and renewable energy ministry that present-day solar photovoltaic panels would cost Rs 90 per watt. This would increase the cost of the rail coach retrofitted with rooftop solar panels by four per cent.

“We’re assuming 15 hours of sunshine during a 40-hour trip,” said M. Shravanth Vasisht, an electrical engineer and research fellow at the Divecha Centre. The excess energy generated by the solar panels could be stored in batteries for use during cloudy days or during the night.

But the idea doesn’t appear to have impressed railway engineers, who have questioned the stability and functioning of the solar panels on rooftops of fast-moving trains.

“A train moves at speeds exceeding 100kmph — how are they going to fix the solar panels? This will be a big challenge,” Paramanand Singh, Chief Design Engineer at the RCF, told.

The researchers say they are trying to collaborate with railway engineers to select appropriate solar panels that could fit on rail coach rooftops and tolerate the vibrations and other forces they would encounter during high-speed runs.

Why can’t Railways attempt to generate its own solar power? -A.K.Ramdas

Typically, a roof top 1 kV system or solar power panel would cost Rs1 lakh and the government provides certain subsidy for its citizens and industries. Railways would come under essential services and it possibly can get a better deal from the government

It may be recalled that the Railway’s interim budget for United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government was presented by Mallikarjun Kharge, which was not implemented, and which has proposed certain unavoidable hikes in fares. DV Sadanand Gowda, the new Railway Minister has now the difficult choice of modifying the proposals made earlier and also include his own vision of what Railways ought to do in the next five years. His plans are expected to be reflected in his budget that is likely to be presented early next month.

According to the press reports, Sadanand Gowda wants to pursue issues of dedicated freight corridors, dedicated coal circuits and increased and better facilities for passengers. But for doing all these, he needs to secure funds, some of which he may seek from the Coal Ministry. Or better still, he could seek to have joint ventures with the Coal India Ltd, which is flush with funds!

Meanwhile, he has no choice but to increase the revenues by higher fares and increased freight charges.

In the last fiscal, fuel costs have gone up by about 30% due to increased cost of diesel, lower indigenous coal supply and inadequate use of existing resources. In fact, in the last 60 years, Gowda has stated, Railways has not modernised, and his plans are likely to be revealed when presenting his budget.

The Indian Railways network covers 65,000kms route; carries 20 million passengers and 2.9 million tonnes of cargo every day. Their own electricity bill is expected to touch Rs10,880 crore this fiscal and the total fuel cost has shot up to Rs 28,471 crore. About 37% of the 65,000 kms route has now been electrified, and, as of now the Power Ministry has clarified that the Railways have a “deemed licensee status”, to transmit, distribute and trade power. Sadanand Gowda can buy power directly from surplus power producing states like MP, Gujarat, Odisha, Chhatisgarh and Haryana, at a slightly cheaper price than from discoms!

Is there anything else that the new minister Sadanand Gowda can do that can have far reaching implications for the Railways? Yes, here are some ideas that he can have his Research and Development (R&D) Team to work on. This is based on the press reports that typically a roof top 1kV system (solar power panel) would cost Rs1 lakh and the government provides certain subsidy for its citizens and industries. Railways would come under essential services and it possibly can get a better deal from the government. So, Sadanand Gowda can direct his team to:

  • carry out a study and seek a manufacturer to design a roof-top solar panel (s) for passenger coaches
  • design a modified version that can be fixed on closed luggage vans
  • design a third version that would be fitted on the top of open wagons, such as those that carry coal, iron ore etc
  • design the system to collect the solar power to be stored in a centralized battery, which could be removed at the end of the day and replaced by a new one; those fully charged batteries may be connected to a power grid for consumption
  • and or design the panels in such a way that the power is routed to a central battery system, possibly installed in a bogey, that can be disconnected at given points enroute and replaced by a new bogey to collect power the next day when the railways move!

We must remember that all our moving railway passenger cars, luggage and open wagons could be utilised to generate solar power, as they are on the move, in the open, during the day. It is this solar power that we need to tap!

Or is this a pipe dream? The writer feels that solar power engineers could come out with some such feasibility, it would make a huge difference to the power starved country. Such an idea can be used on all moving vehicles like buses, tourist coaches etc

Sadanand Gowda would have no problem in getting such a mandate to experiment from the Prime Minister himself, who in Gujarat implemented the setting up of solar panels on the Narmada branch canal near Chandrasan village of Kadi taluka in Mehsana district.

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