• Solar Panels Installed Between Tracks

  • General discussion about railroad operations, related facilities, maps, and other resources.
General discussion about railroad operations, related facilities, maps, and other resources.

Moderator: Robert Paniagua

  by mhig9000
I was wondering what the feasibility of putting solar panels between railroad tracks would be. I do realize that Photovoltaic cells arent in anywhere close to the same ballpark as conventional power plants in terms of efficiency, but I see this more as a project for a company willing to pay a lot of money up front to see a good return on investment once the panels pay for their initial cost. I could see this happening given that the concept could be proven and the economics work out, which could definitely be a possibility as the cost of solar panels comes down and the price for electricity climbs which does appear to be the case.

But more to the point, I'm wondering how railroads would react to the idea. Obviously, some sort of agreement would be worked out for the rights to place the panels in exchange for a yearly fee, but how much would a railroad want for the added hassle of having outsiders meddling on their tracks?

And more basically - would they even permit anyone to do this?
How sensitive are the ties and ballast and could the panels be affixed strongly enough to prevent theft or damage?

And then just as far as the basic physical requirements of the system go:

Would track maintenance be significantly affected? I've read that every 3rd or 4th tie is replaced every couplde of years on tracks with wooden ties, but concrete ties last 50 years - could that be a possibility?.

Also there are ballast concerns - how often is ballast replaced and does it require clear access between the rails?

Also, how much clearance is there between the top of the rails and the ties? Would clearance be an issue? Does anything hang below any types of cars or locos? I assume this isnt too much of a problem because switches run between the rails.

Would electric currents running in insulated lines between the tracks disturb the track circuits or cab signals?

Are railroad lines in the southwest located near enough areas connected to the grid to avoid the need to run lines dozens of miles?

And then, of course, there is the matter of direct sunlight, locating it in the southwest is a start, but does anyone know how unobstructed the rail lines are out there as far as sunlight goes? And how often do trains run on the lines and how long are the trains and how fast do they usually travel? I'm trying to figure out the average amount of sunlight the panels would lose per day due to trains traveling over. Ideally they'd be lines that didnt have that much obstruction, although lines that were rarely used would probably not be that great either because the panels would go unmonitored for too long.

Thats it for questions, but in case youre wondering what I see in this far fetched idea:

Benefits to the company who places the panels by using rails:

Plenty of tracks in the Southwest (BNSF and UP) with lots of direct sunlight

Easy acess to the panels (they're right between rails after all)

Tracks are spread out so the panels could tap into the grid where it was convenient and where energy prices were the highest

Im assuming the railroads wouldnt demand too much in "rent" (I don't know this but I'm hoping other posters will set me straight) so land costs would be cheaper than buying a big plot somewhere

Security - with trains running over them all the time it would be easy to find out if panels had been damaged or vandalized without needing to hire security personnel.

Benefits to the Railroads:

Good PR: Most people still think railroads are dirty and not environmentally friendly but could help change that image and spread the word about the efficiency of rail freight.

Money: The "rent" can help to offset the high costs of track maintenance and repair

Safety: The panels could be wired to provide backup power for signals, etc. to provide a fail safe.

So those are just some ponderings ive been having, I'm more interested in hearing about whether you think this could work logistically and getting some of my questions answered rather than whether it would be prudent to implement economically or its impact on energy policy. As you can tell I don't know all that much about railroad infrastructure.

And if you do think this is a good plan please dont steal it, haha.

  by David Benton
Solar panels produce low voltage d. c , so stringing them out along tracks wouldnt work .
There best use would be providing power to remote area railroad uses , such as grade crossings , signals , and radio gear . and that is what theyre used for today .
pv power is not necessarrily cost effective , generally if utility power is avaliable , it is more cost effective .

  by Chicagorail1
Get a job with the Railroad as a conductor or on the track gang, then come back and delete your post after about 7 days of field training, sooner if your not a slow learner.

  by Aji-tater
You are to be commended for thinking "outside the box" and you raise an interesting idea. But there are numerous reasons why it would not work and you have touched on a few - for instance even though nothing is supposed to be lower than 3 inches above the rail, it is not uncommon for items to dangle or drag under a car. These could obviously do significant damage to the panels.

Another issue is track inspection - regulations require inspection at least once a week, more frequently on heavier usage and passenger lines. Solar panels would obstruct inspection of tie condition, ballast and so on. If a low spot required a tamper to raise and surface the track, the panels would have to be removed and replaced.

There are a lot more reasons but that's a start. Again, nice concept but it would not be practical. However many railroad rights-of-way are wider than needed for track, an access road, and drainage. The concept of lining the outer edges of the ROW might be worth considering in some locations. There would still be issues to address but that would be more practical than putting them between the rails.

  by RussNelson
Solar panels are made of glass. Imagine what one thing dangling below a train would do to miles and miles of solar panels. Also, solar panels need to be clean; trains tend to stir up dust and deposit it on all nearby surfaces. Also, solar panels are most efficient when perpendicular to the sun's rays; not pointing directly up.

  by roadster
Not to mention the oil and grease droped by passing loco's, and can you imagine the hastle of tie, rail replacement, and ballasting issues.

How about all of those millions and millions of trees, just standing around, doing nothing. Maybe we could hang solar panels all over them......... :P

  by slchub
Not to mention the nice glare down the rail as the sun is reflected up. I'd love that all day. But we do have some panels up and around the UP system. Mostly around TDD's and switches. Roper yard in Salt Lake has them for the remote control switches. They are placed on a 12'-15' pole. Kind of interesting.