A very interesting solar power project is coming to Byron Bay, NSW. The town centre and the North Beach resort area to its northwest will be connected by a solar train, first of its kind in the world. The project will run fully on solar power, using battery storage to operate even without sunshine. The train will use 3 km of existing railroad tracks that are not currently used, so it is expected to start operating before the end of 2017.
Rooftop solar power systems are growing fast, in both the residential and commercial sectors. However, transportation has been slow to convert to solar power throughout the world: while technologically feasible, the concept has been held back by the high price of batteries. Solar PV systems in residential and commercial properties can operate without batteries, since their owners can simply use the power network during nighttime or cloudy days. The same cannot be said of electric vehicles, which lack a 24/7 connection to the grid, so they must rely on batteries.
The solar train will combine modern technology with an antique style. It will use two commuter cars from the 1960s, which are being restored and retrofitted to operate with electricity. A diesel engine was originally proposed, but the local community frowned upon the idea due to the noise and environmental impact. Thus, the concept of an electric train was proposed.
The train itself will be equipped with 6.5 kW of flexible and lightweight solar panels. These panels can adapt to the rounded shape of the commuter cars, which means they will not change their appearance. However, since these on-board panels are not enough to fully power the train, the main station will be equipped with a larger 30-kW array and the train will have a battery system with a total storage capacity of 77 kWh. Most of the charge will be supplied in 20-minute intervals while the train is at the station, and some power will be generated in transit by the smaller 6.5-kW solar PV system.
The project will also take advantage of the local feed-in tariffs for solar PV systems, which were increased halfway through 2017. The 30-kW array in the main station is expected to generate more energy that what the train needs to operate, so any surplus production will be exported to the power network for additional cash flow.
Byron Bay experiences traffic congestion issues between North Beach and the town centre, especially during the high season. The solar train will help decongest traffic by using currently unused railroad tracks, while avoiding emissions by running fully on solar power.
Although the solar power system used by the Byron Bay railroad is of modest size, the application makes it unique. The solar train will be the first of its kind in the world, and it uses existing vehicles and infrastructure, proving that transportation can become cleaner without being rebuilt from zero.