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The ‘Solar Tunnel’: a greener future for our railways?

Henry Gass

8th June, 2011

The opening of Belgium’s ‘Solar Tunnel’ railway project has raised questions about the use of solar for UK transport projects, says Henry Gass

Railway infrastructure is being used to generate green energy for the first time in Europe with the inauguration of the ‘Solar Tunnel’ in Belgium. 3.4 kilometres of tunnel roof near Antwerp, part of the high-speed line connecting Paris and Amsterdam, has been covered with 16,000 solar PV panels, an area of roughly 50,000m2 – equivalent to eight football pitches.

The panels will generate an estimated 3.3 MWh of electricity a year, equivalent to the average annual electricity consumption of nearly 1,000 homes, and will decrease CO2 emissions by 2,400 tonnes per year. The electricity will be used to power the railway infrastructure (signalling, lighting, heating of railway stations etc) and trains using the Belgian rail network. 4,000 trains per year – equivalent to one full day of rail traffic – will be able to run entirely on solar energy. Belgium-based renewable energy company Enfinity financed, developed and built the Solar Tunnel project, at a cost, says Bart van Renterghem, head of Enfinity UK, of around £14 million.
 
‘Solar PV has one big advantage compared to other renewable energy technologies,’ says van Renterghem. ‘This kind of technology is really deliverable. We had a tunnel, the rooftop had no economic use at all. We installed solar PV, it’s not disturbing anyone, but you are making use of assets that weren’t productive before, using technology which does not create any sound, which has almost no visual impact, deliverable on a short time frame.’
 
According to van Renterghem, discussions around the Solar Tunnel project began at the start of 2010, and the project was finalised by the end of the year. ‘I don’t know any renewable energy technology where you can start developing and realising the project and getting it operational within one year,’ says van Renterghem. The 3.3 MWh figure was calculated based on the forecast of the average sunshine in north Belgium. Many environmentalists, including George Monbiot, have argued that solar power is an impractical technology for the UK and northern Europe given the relative lack of sunshine the region receives. However, van Renterghem argues that projects like the Solar Tunnel are more sustainable than importing solar energy from sunnier regions. ‘Solar PV, it’s about de-central electricity generation. So they generate electricity on the spot where you’re going to consume it. It doesn’t make sense to build a big solar installation in the south of Italy and then transport green energy to the north of Germany to consume it over there.’

Enfinity and companies like them anticipate difficulty developing similar projects in the UK, however. This summer, Parliament is expected to slash the Feed-In Tariff (FIT) for large-scale renewable energy projects – the government incentive that pays companies back for every MWh of energy they produce from the renewable sources they install. The Solar Tunnel project received €350 per MWh of energy produced: the standard incentive for large-scale projects in Belgium. In the UK, the current FIT for large-scale projects is £310. According to van Renterghem, Parliament is looking to decrease the amount to £85. Incentives for residential installations, however, remain close to £400 per MWh. ‘They have a certain budget for supporting these kinds of projects and they have defined the residential houses as priority, so they are not in favour of large-scale because they fear that large-scale would consume too big part of the budget,’ says van Renterghem.
 
Due to the limited sunlight in the UK, these reductions limit large-scale solar projects to 1,000 to 1,500m2 in order for them to be viable – a fraction of the size of the Solar Tunnel project. Enfinity had plans to develop solar PV installations on the rooftops of commercial buildings and on inactive landfill sites, but van Renderghem says the projects have been put on hold in light of the anticipated reduction in financing. ‘You can still justify certain investments with low production because you have a higher incentive,’ says van Renterghem.
 
Van Renterghem says these cuts could endanger the market for solar technology, which has seen prices drop 30 to 40 per cent in the last three years. Government incentives have been dropping to match the reduction in solar investment costs, but van Renterghem argues that the UK’s dramatic reductions could eliminate an entire sector of the solar power business. ‘We are fully in line with the fact that the incentives have to go down and they have to be regularly reviewed,’ he says. ‘In Germany and Belgium, you have gradual decrease of the incentives for large scale projects which follow the decreasing cost of solar PV installations.’ But, he warns, ‘if you cut the support too much at this moment you kill the industry.’

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