Solar for Indian Railways

Chugging along the solar pathway

Ever since the most popular form of transport in India, the Indian Railways, fixed a target of 1 GW of solar energy by 2020, it has undertaken various and more importantly definite measures towards meeting this figure.

It was two years ago, on July 14, 2017, to be precise, that the first solar-powered diesel electrical multiple unit train was launched from the Safdarjung railway station in Delhi. With 16 solar panels fitted in six coaches, each producing 300 Wp, it runs from Sarai Rohilla in Delhi to Farukh Nagar in Haryana.

On May 18, 2018, the railway station in Guwahati became the first in the country to be fully solar-powered. The building at the Guwahati railway station has grid-connected rooftop solar panels totalling a capacity of 700 kilowatt (0.7 MW) and they cater to the station’s electricity requirements, the coach depot, the railway colony area, the Northeast Frontier Railway, an arm of the Indian Railways, said in an official statement.

More recently, the Indian Railways announced plans to invest Rs 18,000 crore on solar power units along tracks. “In a bid to cut down on its power purchase costs and utilise the vast stretches of linear land along the tracks with greater efficiency, the Indian Railways is planning to come up with solar power tenders of 4 GW soon. The bids will open business opportunities of about Rs 18,000 crore for the domestic solar industry that consists of equipment makers and plant installers,” the Financial Express reported.

According to news reports, the Indian Railways has already provided solar panels on roof top of 19 narrow gauge coaches and 23 broad gauge coaches. However, these systems work only during sunlight and generate a battery back-up of approximately 4-5 hours, with several snags during fog and rain.

With the larger intent of being a net-zero carbon emitter by 2030, the use of solar is surely going to be one of the most defining factors towards meeting this goal.

The fact that the Railways is indeed keen on harnessing solar power was evident when Minister of Railways and Commerce and Industry, Piyush Goyal, informed the Lok Sabha recently that the “Indian Railways plans to harness 500 MW of land-based solar power for traction.”

“So far, 3 MW of solar PV capacity has been set up on Indian Railway’s unused lands. Also, a 50 MW solar PV project at Bhilai (Madhya Pradesh) is also under implementation at Sukhi-Siwania in West Central Railway along with a 2 MW solar PV project at Diwana (Haryana) in Northern Railways”, he added.

According to a 2017 study funded by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Indian Railways could provide 5GW of solar power to its network through a $3.6bn investment.
The Railways has also teamed up with the UNDP to reach the 5GW milestone, which will involve implementing 3,900MW of utility-scale projects and 1,100MW via rooftop initiatives. It is working with the Railways in meeting a target of 5 GW by 2025 through measures such as using vacant Indian Railways land and rooftop space to house and support solar, installations at no cost to the project and increasing the solar power generation capacity five-fold against the Railways target of 1 GW.

The Financial Express reported that as of now, the railways need 16 billion units of electricity every year, equivalent to supplies from 12 GW of generation capacity. It is reportedly spending around Rs 10,000 crore on electricity every year with the average per unit cost being around Rs 6/unit. In states such as Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Rajasthan, Railways pays tariffs as high as Rs 10.52 per unit, Rs 9.13 per unit and Rs 8.33 per unit, respectively, on traction.

There is a proposal for a tender to be invited by Solar Energy Corporation of India (SECI), the government’s nodal agency for solar bidding and will be issued in two tranches of 2 GW each to be built across 10 states. The framework document for the project proposes that the first tranche would be for solar plants in Odisha, Punjab, West Bengal, Haryana and Rajasthan while the remaining capacity would be set up in Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Telangana.

As per conditions for the tender, the 4 GW plan would require developers to build 1.2 GW of domestic solar manufacturing capacity.

In sync with the government’s move to heighten electrification of railway tracks, the upcoming solar plants will be designed to use the transmission system built for railway traction, thereby lowering the tariff of electricity. Encouragingly, as on April 2018, almost 30,212 route kilometres, or nearly 45% of the total rail lines, had been commissioned on electric traction, The Financial Express added.

A couple of weeks ago, Railway Energy Management Company (REMCL), a joint venture between the Indian Railways and RITES Limited, had invited bids to set up 140 MW of wind-solar hybrid projects. The wind-solar hybrid projects will be set up under the nodal zonal railways of Gujarat, Karnataka, and Madhya Pradesh, clean energy consultancy Mercom reported.

The Northern Railways also invited developers for setting up of 4.715 MW of rooftop installations. This tender consisted of 133 installations of 10 kW (1.33 MW) and 677 installations of 5 kW (3.385 MW), totalling 4.715 MW, which was to be installed on D and E category railway stations.

In January 2019, REMCL had invited bids for setting up of 2 MW of solar projects along the Delhi-Ambala railway track. In the same year, in March, REMCL tendered 60.17 MW of rooftop solar PV capacity to be set up on the rooftops of offices, buildings, and railway establishments across the zonal railways in India.

Using wind energy: Apart from solar, the Railways also plans to harness 200 MW of wind energy, the bulk of which will be used for traction purpose, minister Piyush Goyal informed the lower house of Parliament.

As of now, 26 MW of wind projects have been installed at Jaisalmer (Rajasthan), and another 10.5 MW of wind projects have been installed at Tirunelveli (Tamil Nadu). Both are supplying power for train operations. Moreover, 50.4 MW of wind projects at Sangli (Maharashtra) are under the commissioning process for train operations, said Goyal. The Indian Railways is also utilizing unused land for renewable energy project development, he added.

The move towards opting for solar is a good one and will surely help reduce consumption of fuel, apart from overall expenditure, is what Rajesh Gupta, an official at the National Academy of Indian Railways (NAIR), an apex organisation for training Indian Railways officers in Vadodara, Gujarat, told this writer.

Consistent efforts and policy measures, it appears, will surely help the largest rail network in Asia contribute 5% towards India’s target of 100 GW of solar deployment. While the journey may have begun recently, it’s clear that the railways intends to chug along with solar power in tow.

Sapna Gopal is a freelance writer on energy and environmental issues