Intelligent Energy

Germany's road to a 100% renewable railway

Posting in Cities

What's the German national railway to do without nuclear power? Look to the water, wind, and sun.

Nuclear power was once a go-to source for keeping German trains on the go. Fukushima changed that. In response to Japan’s nuclear disaster, Germany decided to put the brakes on its nuclear plants by 2020. Now, Deutsche Bahn, the country’s biggest electricity consumer, is looking elsewhere.

The national railway operator plans to switch over entirely to renewable energy by 2050. To do so, it would not only have to replace nuclear power, which filled a quarter of its needs, but hydrocarbons as well. In 2009, the company listed coal as its top energy source at 45 percent, with natural gas chipping in 9 percent.

Hans-Juergen Witschke, chief executive of Deutsche Bahn Energie, tells Reuters:

Environmental protection has become an important issue in the market place and especially in the transport sector. It's a mega trend. Even though more renewables will cost a bit more, that can be contained with an intelligent energy mix and reasonable time frame. We're confident that cutting CO2 emissions will give us a competitive advantage.

The trains speeding across Germany require a lot of power. The rail system consumes 12 terawatt-hours a year, Reuters reports. This is around the same amount as the city of Berlin. Currently about 20 percent of this power comes from renewable sources. By 2014, the railway wants to hit 28 percent. By 2020, 35 percent. The company then has 30 years to reach its carbon-free destination by mid-century.

Germany’s rivers will help push them along. Earlier this summer, the railway struck a $1.8-billion deal with RWE to draw power from 14 of the company’s 45 hydroelectric plants for 15 years. They’ll supply the rail system with about 900 million kilowatt-hours annually. In this corner of Europe, hydroelectricity keeps a lot of trains on the renewable track. The Energy Collective reports that the Austrian and Swiss railways run on 93 percent and 75 percent renewable power, respectively, with a lot of help from hydro.

But Deutsche Bahn’s journey won’t be all wet. A few photovoltaic-covered stations add to the company’s renewable portfolio, (so far nothing quite like Belgium’s new high-speed rail solar tunnel). Wind turbines in Brandenburg are also a part of the railway’s ambitious transition. Since 2010, Deutsche Bahn has purchased wind power from the 30-megawatt Märkisch-Linden wind farm and more recently, a 7.5-megawatt farm in Hoher Fläming Nature Park.

Some stops and stalls along the way will no doubt involve cost considerations, fluctuations in renewable power sources and energy storage issues.

Witschke concedes their renewable move will be a learning process but continues:

We've got a vision of being carbon free by 2050. That's not just a declaration of intent. It's a concrete business target.

Related on SmartPlanet:

Melissa Mahony

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Melissa Mahony has written for Scientific American Mind, Audubon Magazine, Plenty Magazine and LiveScience. Formerly, she was an editor at Wildlife Conservation magazine. She holds degrees from Boston College and New York University's Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure