Sunday, June 23, 2013

Can wind and sun power run trains on time?

BRITAIN’S RAIL NETWORK has been looking at becoming a self-sufficient electricity generator amid fears national power shortages could cause a crisis for the country’s trains
Network Rail has confirmed it has examined the option, which could in future include wind farms and solar energy plants, and that it remains a “live issue”.
Rail bosses are concerned about warnings from electricity regulator Ofgem that dwindling capacity in the next five years could cause widespread power cuts.
The rail network, via its supplier EDF, is already National Grid’s biggest customer, sucking in about three per cent of Britain’s electricity, equivalent to 3,200GWh last year.
But that figure is predicted to soar to 4.5 per cent over the next five years as major routes, such as the Great Western Main Line to south Wales, complete their overhead wiring projects.
In the longer term, the completion of high speed rail, which will need another 2,000GWh every year, means Network Rail’s demand for electricity will almost double current levels.
That rise in demand also increases the likelihood of blackouts in Britain’s homes as consumers compete for power.
Although trains are becoming better at preserving electricity through special braking systems, customer demand for air conditioning and extra power points for gadgets only adds to the problems.
Network Rail has drawn up contingency plans to tackle short-term emergencies.
During any prolonged power cuts, it will insist operators run diesel trains on electrified routes and it will find alternative ways to signal trains.
Rail experts also predict that the National Grid might reduce the voltages to suppliers such as EDF, which could mean slower trains.
The nightmare scenarios have forced Network Rail to undertake a “future-proofing” exercise.
To reduce reliance on the National Grid, Network Rail has been considering generating its own electricity.
Strategists have already conducted one feasibility study, but they have refused publish the details other than to say generating their own electricity is not feasible “for now”.
A Network Rail spokesman told the Sunday Express: “We constantly review all elements of our electricity supply including the feasibility of producing our own electricity.
“As long as there has been a railway, the question over power production – whether it’s done in-house or bought in—has been a live issue and it continues to be one.
“But at the moment, it’s not something that offers any significant benefits over the current arrangement.”
He added: “We have contingencies in place for power supply issues which include running diesel only services on electrified part of the network and plans to safely signal trains without electric lineside signals.
“These contingency plans are used to deal with power supply issues of various shapes and sizes, so they are put to use and regularly tested for effectiveness.”
The future-proofing project is also examining how to best to deal with the changing nature of Britain’s electricity supply as the country moves away from large coal powered stations to renewable sources such as wind and solar.
Under current arrangements, EDF supplies power to a relatively small number of entry points on the rail system, akin to plug sockets, at strategic points around the country.
Large volumes of power are pumped in from those sources, but the closure of several large coal plants and the move to renewable energy means a major overhaul is needed.
Instead, electricity will have to be supplied via many more but smaller sized entry points.
A Network Rail source said: “We currently don’t have the infrastructure in place to get those renewables into our network.
“So we’re just looking at what we need to do to change that. We’re the single biggest consumer of electricity in the country so we have to have people thinking about what’s going to happen.
“Things are going to change, we’re just making sure that we can change with them.”
Any changes must be approved by the Government and Transport Minister Norman Baker told the Sunday Express yesterday: “It’s good that Network Rail are planning ahead for a further expansion of the railway and this should give people confidence that they’ve got plans in place to make sure electricity needs are met.”
Meanwhile, his fellow transport minister, Stephen Hammond, told the latest issue of Rail magazine that he was “confident” the predicted gap in electricity supply would be “closed”.