Riding sunbeams

Riding Sunbeams seeks to connect solar PV directly into the UK’s electrified rail network to power trains. Direct supply of solar power traction to railway systems has never been done before, neither in the UK nor anywhere else in the world. Its potential to decarbonize railways is huge.

The challenge

Despite the huge market potential for this innovation, little work has been done on the development and implementation of solar traction farms. A high-level study completed in 2017 found that solar traction power is both technically feasible and commercially attractive for both solar electricity generators and UK railways under current market conditions, even in the emerging post-subsidy environment.

Riding Sunbeams received First of a Kind funding to connect a demonstration solar PV system to the railway. The technical team is implementing the demonstration project and gathering data for evaluation which will guide the development of six pilot sites.

The commercial team is establishing procurement pathways as there is no comparable precedent of Network Rail procuring traction power directly from a third-party generator via a private wire supply.

The social and environmental team is establishing a social impact framework to ensure that maximum social value is delivered alongside the commercial case.

What we're doing

Developing the social impact framework involves the collaboration between Network Rail, community energy groups and Riding Sunbeams and its partners, including the University of Bristol.

We are engaging with relevant departments and individuals within Network Rail to establish what their expectations are and how Riding Sunbeams fits into their social performance policy, their sustainable development strategy and their energy and carbon policy.

We are also engaging with communities that will be developing the six pilot projects to establish what their expectations are and how contractual arrangements with partners such as Network Rail can pave the way for future collaborations for the deployment of renewable energy technologies that entail significant social and environmental benefits.

How it helps

Establishing how value is created and captured as part of community energy projects and how organizations such as Network Rail engage with communities will provide the basis for creating a social impact framework.

This social impact framework will enable embedded benefits to be identified and distributed fairly among collaborators. Such benefits include a framework for contractual relationships that are beneficial for all parties as this approach to power procurement is new for UK rail traction.

It also creates a subsidy-free market for direct renewable traction power supply from community and commuter-led renewable energy projects. Examples of economic, social and environmental value capture through community benefit funds include work undertaken by Community Energy South and its volunteers in relation to fuel poverty whereby for every £1 of resource invested, at least £2 are saved by the community, along with warmer homes and lower carbon emissions.

Lead researcher profile

Dr Colin Nolden, Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow in Sustainable City Business Models

Partner organisations

  • 10:10 Climate Action (parent company)
  • Community Energy South (parent company)
  • Ricardo Energy
  • Network Rail
  • Leapfrog Finance/Pure Leapfrog/Leapfrog Launchpad
  • University of Birmingham
  • University of Bristol
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