Vertical solar panels along the railway

In the Netherlands, there are 550 kilometres of noise barriers lining the railway tracks, and another 150 kilometres will be added in the next few years. Solar panels installed on such large surfaces could be a major source of solar energy. The Hague University of Applied Sciences (THUAS) is working with ProRail on an integrated research project.

America Trainline

‘THUAS is participating in a highly innovative project in which we are installing solar panels vertically instead of horizontally. Although this method produces less energy, it has great potential in the energy transition’, explains Sander Mertens, professor of Energy in Transition in the Mission Zero Centre of Expertise. 

Supply and demand 

Solar energy is growing fast in the Netherlands — sometimes even too fast. In the summer, especially, a lot of solar energy is supplied to the grid. This sometimes results in peak moments when supply exceeds demand and the price is negative. The research group Energy in Transition focuses on the research question of how to optimally match the supply and demand of this energy. 

Solar parks 

Large scale solar parks are emerging in more and more locations. And, according to Sander, that isn't necessarily the solution with the lowest social costs. ‘You have to look at the overall system. Solar energy must meet the demand for energy. If there is no local demand, energy is distributed via the power grid to places where there is demand. Solar energy is mainly available in the summer and that's precisely one of its drawbacks. In summer there is little demand for energy and — especially in the future, when everyone has solar energy — it can be difficult to use this energy. Vertical panels yield less energy in the summer, but about the same amount during the rest of the year. This is much more in line with the demand in winter, which is high because of the greater need for heating. And the potential of vertical panels is great. We have an awful lot of façades in the Netherlands.’ 

NEWRAIL 

Together with ProRail, research organisation TNO, energy cooperative Rijndonk and the municipality of Horst aan de Maas, THUAS is working on the NEWRAIL research project (Noise Energy Wall Rail America in Limburg). Next year, noise barriers will be placed on both sides of the tracks next to the America neighbourhood. These approximately 100 to 200-metre-long screens will be fully lined with solar panels. 

“American” electricity 

The electricity generated by the solar panels will be fed into the grid. Because energy cooperative Reindonk Energie supplies electricity to the neighbourhood, a regional product, as it were, will be created: “American Electricity”. The pilot project will last four years. TNO and The Hague University of Applied Sciences are responsible for the design of the solar panels and the electrical installation. ProRail is responsible for the tendering process, construction of the noise barriers, and installation of the solar panel system. 

Integral research by Mission Zero 

Three research groups of the Mission Zero Centre of Expertise are involved in the research. The research group Energy in Transition is researching the technical part. Among other things, it's studying the effect of the trains on the electrical installation. 

The Circular Business research group is examining the business model. For example, to what extent does the multiple use of noise barriers affect cost savings? 

Public support is an important part of this project. The research group Urban Metabolism is studying how to best involve local residents in the project. ‘Solar panels reflect sound and light and may not look that nice to residents, so we will discuss this with them. On the other hand, local residents have an interest in the cooperative generating the highest and most cost-effective yield possible. By listening carefully, the project will be approved faster, no one will dig in their heels, and we can avoid the costs of a delay.’ 

‘This broad and integral approach is the strength of our Mission Zero Centre of Expertise’, says Sander. 

Fresh perspectives 

Involving students is also an important aspect of the pilot project. Among other tasks, students at THUAS calculate the business case and conduct research in their direct current research lab (DC lab) on the electrical consequences of a passing train on the panels and the distribution of energy. Sander: ‘Students often come up with surprising ideas, which may cause the establishment to raise its eyebrows. But a fresh look is very much needed in such an innovative project as NEWRAIL.’