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25 October 2010

Belgium pioneers solar railway tunnel

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Solar project company Enfinity has announced that it is installing 50,000 square metres of solar panels on top of a railway tunnel on the line connecting Amsterdam and Paris, as part of an pioneering new project that could open up large areas for renewable energy development and help cut the carbon footprint of Europe's rail network.

The power generated by the panels will be used to power conventional and high-speed trains running on the line, said the company.

Enfinity is working with Infrabel, the Belgian railway infrastructure manager, to install the 16,000 panels on a two-mile stretch of tunnel running alongside Belgium's E19 road.

The project, due for completion this December, will provide 3.5Mw/hours of energy each year, and will cost $20.1m.

The solar installation will also power parts of Antwerp Station, in addition to the Antwerp north-south junction, Enfinity said.

However, despite the attraction of installing large numbers of panels in a location close to where the resulting energy will be used there are technical challenges involved in installing panels on a railway tunnel. Fast trains rushing through the tunnel could create vibrational problems, for example.

Enfinity is addressing this issue by using a ballast tile that avoids the need to put perforations directly in the roof, insulating the solar panels from the strong kinetic force created by the trains.

Enfinity, a Belgian company, recently acquired ClearPeak, a solar energy developer, taking on board its portfolio of US-based renewable projects.

If the railway tunnel project succeeds, it could be a useful flagship contract for the company as it expands into the North American market. The US is mulling several high-speed rail projects, both at a state level, and with interest from a federal government keen to create jobs and fuel green industries.


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