Solar and Rail: The Perfect Match?

Mention “green economy,” and almost automatically many people will think about alternative energy sources like wind and solar. Without question, the makeup of our energy system needs to change—badly. But other aspects of greening the economy shouldn’t get short shrift either. Changing the way we travel from point A to point B, limiting the voracious appetite of our buildings for heating and cooling, and making industries like steel, aluminum, and paper far more efficient are all essential tasks. In many cases, these activities might be pursued in parallel, as different “wedges” of a climate stabilization policy.

Better yet, such approaches can be combined in imaginative ways. One encouraging example is found in China, where solar energy and rail endeavors came together in a project inaugurated last month. A 6.68 megawatt photovoltaic system was installed on roofs and awnings of the recently completed Hongqiao Station, part of the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed rail line currently under construction.

The project’s 20,000 solar panels cover an area of 61,000 square meters, forming the largest standalone PV array in the world. The system cost about $23 million to install, produces enough electricity for 12,000 Shanghai households, will cut coal consumption by 2,254 tons, and will reduce carbon emissions by 6,600 tons.

The Hongqiao array is regarded as a pilot project. But given the massive expansion of China’s rail system, it holds enormous potential. Plans are to lengthen the total rail network from 92,000 kilometers today to 120,000 kilometers by 2020, a goal that may even be raised to 150,000 kilometers. The country’s high-speed lines are set to reach a length of 25,000 kilometers. Earlier this year, some 6,500 kilometers had already been constructed.

The rail station sits next to Hongqiao airport

There will be plenty of rail-station roofs to put solar panels on. For that matter, solar panels could be integrated into many more buildings in Shanghai and China’s other metropolises. China and Taiwan together now produce about half the world’s PV panels, but they export most of them. With the Hongqiao project, perhaps that will begin to change.

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