Intelligent Energy

Sun-powered high speed rail rises in Europe

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Rail travel between Paris and Amsterdam just got sunnier. Through a tunnel and an ancient forest in Belgium, solar-powered trains are beaming with light.

A high speed rail line between Paris and Amsterdam now runs partially on the sun. Trains gliding along the E19 highway in Belgium at about 180 miles per hour are drawing power from 2.1 miles of solar panels.

Atop a train tunnel, Enfinity's photovoltaic panels cover more than 500,000 square feet. The tunnel runs through the ancient Peerds Forest with the original purpose of preventing trees from falling on the tracks. As of yesterday, it took on another job. The tunnel's 3.3-megawatt solar roof now generates electricity for the railway's trains, signals and lights and helps heat stations, such as the nearby Antwerp Central Station.

Trains with solar roofs appeared in Italy in 2005, but these panels only kept the carriage's air conditioners running. Belgium's $22.6 million (15.6 million euros) installation can reportedly power the equivalent of 4,000 train trips on Infrabel's HSL4 line and cut the railway's carbon dioxide input by 2,400 tons annually.

Bart Van Renterghem of Enfinity's UK branch tells The Guardian:

For train operators, it is the perfect way to cut their carbon footprints because you can use spaces that have no other economic value and the projects can be delivered within a year because they don't attract the protests that wind power does.

Even so, wind power is also on the agenda for Belgium's high speed rail network. Southeast of Brussels, Infrabel is planning a 2.5-megawatt wind farm along Highway E40. The 20 turbines will help power the railway between Leuven and Liège.

On the other side of the North Sea, however, some of Enfinity's other solar-rail endeavors are on standby. According to Van Renterghem, the UK government's proposal in March to cut renewable energy subsidies has hamstrung many efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

One project that is still speeding along is London's new Blackfriar's station. With 4,400 solar panels stretching across the Thames, the 1-megawatt project will provide half the station's electricity needs. The $11.9 million solar installation, the Guardian reports, will be the biggest in Britain when it opens next year.

For a bird's-eye view of the Antwerp-Amsterdam tunnel and an intense dose of electronic music, see below:

Related on SmartPlanet:

Image: Flickr/Asia Veroli and Network Rail

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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