An idea whose time may be close: battery-powered TRAINS


Even better than electric cars, I’d say.

Ars Technica analyzes whether we could already use big batteries to power trains. Here is why you should read the whole analysis.

An idea whose time may be close: battery-powered TRAINS /img/train-battery.jpg
CAPTION: A battery cell for trains, click for more (from The Guardian)

The problem: diesel trains are toxic

Right now, moving freight with diesel-powered locomotives is estimated to pollute enough to cause 1,000 premature deaths and $6.5 billion in health damages every year, in the USA alone.

Electrifying the whole system with wires above the tracks would cost too much. Hydrogen fuel cells would be cheaper, but making enough of them is ” likely many years away from becoming a reality”.

This leaves batteries. Many existing locomotives move their wheels with electric generators. Attaching those same generators to big batteries, instead of the diesel engines that currently power them, would finally make the trains as green as those batteries.

Until a few years ago, this solution was really too expensive. Now, it’s almost profitable, at least in some scenarios. For details, see the links. The conclusion, however, is that…

“The system is not there yet”

Not profitably, that least, as it also depends on building the battery management infrastructures, and use it enough to pay for it quickly enough. Charging would also cost more when it cannot happen when wind or solar generators are not producing more power than needed by other users. But we are getting closer and closer. Besides…

Making things really interesting: MOBILE batteries

“The analysis becomes very interesting when the researchers leave freight behind and start thinking about what could be done with many big, mobile batteries. Even without moving them, freight companies could use their capacity to provide grid stabilization services or sell back power when the price gets high. In extreme cases, this system could actually pay for the entire infrastructure.”

My own little executive summary: you cannot solve any systemic problem, be it freight transportation or anything else, without remaking the whole picture around it. Interesting times await us. Especially if freight volume will sensibly decrease in the next decades, thus making all the currrent cost/profit forecasts moot.

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