Greening the Tracks

Growing uptake of solar and biodiesel in Indian Railways

Indian Railways (IR) plans to be a net-zero carbon emitter by 2030. To this end, it intends to increase the use of renewable energy in its operations. This presents a huge potential for renewable energy development, particularly solar and biofuel. While railway premises offer suitable sites for solar installations, the bulk use of diesel as fuel provides an opportunity for biodiesel. The Indian Railways Organisation for Alternative Fuel (IROAF) is the single-window entity for the work related to the use of alternative fuels in railways. The organisation’s objectives include switching to biodiesel and promoting the use of solar energy in rolling stock and mechanical assets.

Biofuel and waste-to-energy

Biodiesel, a type of biofuel, is a good alternative since it is renewable, biodegradable and has lower emissions. On the mechanical side, no engine modifications are required except for fuel lines that need to be changed in older engines. Biodiesel can be blended with mineral diesel up to 20 per cent and used in diesel engines without any modifications.

Biofuel can partly bring down the volume of oil imports since it is produced using domestically sourced feedstock. Around 2.8 billion litres of diesel is consumed annually by nearly 4,800 freight and passenger locomotives. The use of B10 biodiesel blend can replace about 280 million litres of diesel annually.

As one of its objectives to move away from conventional energy sources, the IROAF has commissioned a waste-to-energy (WtE) plant at Kishanganj Railway Colony, in Delhi. The WtE plant has a capacity to process 1 tonne of bio-waste to generate up to 80 kWh of electrical energy per day.

Solar power

Solar power is gaining traction in the railways sector. In 2017, IROAF launched the first solar-powered diesel electrical multiple unit (DEMU) train in New Delhi. Each of its six compartments had an installed capacity of 4.5 kW, totalling 27 kW. IR now plans to set up 1,000 MW of solar power plants, including 500 MW of rooftop and 500 MW of ground-mounted projects, atop railway stations and various service buildings.

While solar energy has been introduced in train coaches for lights, fans and charging points, most of the capacity addition has happened at railway workshops, stations and on office premises. In July 2018, the Hubballi workshop became the first location for IR where a 1 MW rooftop solar module was commissioned at a single location other than a station. Further, 2.204 MW of capacity has been set up in the Bilaspur zone, on the rooftops of zonal and division administrative offices, rest houses, and running rooms. According to the IROAF, rooftop solar projects have been initiated at 26 railway workshops and production units. Contracts for the workshops at Parel, Kota and Bhavnagar as well as a production unit at Patiala have been finalised. Contracts have also been finalised for three railway stations, at Amritsar, Pathankot and Jalandhar.

IROAF has tendered a total of 1,125 kW of rooftop solar capacity to be set up on trailer railway coaches. Further, Railway Energy Management Company Limited (REMCL) has drawn up a plan to float a tender for setting up 323 MW of rooftop solar projects atop offices and station buildings and production units. In Phase I, 100 MW of rooftop solar projects will be  set up. At the zonal level, Northern Railway has invited developers to set up 4.715 MW of rooftop solar installations. This tender consists of 133 installations of 10 kW and 677 installations of 5 kW.

For grid-connected rooftop solar, bids have been submitted for a project totalling 60.17 MW in capacity. This involves the development of grid-connected rooftop solar PV systems atop office buildings and railway stations of various zonal railways through public-private partnership (PPP).

IR’s solar initiative extends to its unused land, with 3 MW of installed capacity having already been set up. Further, a 50 MW solar project, slated to begin in 2021, will be set up in Bhilai by REMCL. Refex Energy Limited and the Shapoorji Pallonji Group have already submitted bids for this project. Projects that are expected to be installed in March 2020 include a 1.7 MW Sukhi-Siwania solar plant for West Central Railway (WCR) and a 2 MW solar plant at Diwana for Northern Railway (NR).

Wind and solar-wind hybrids

The Ministry of Railways plans to harness 200 MW of wind energy. Currently, 36.5 MW of wind energy generation capacity has been installed by the railways. This capacity comprises a 26 MW project installed at Jaisalmer in Rajasthan and a 10.5 MW project at Tirunelveli in Tamil Nadu. Another 50.4 MW capacity of wind projects are under commissioning in Sangli, Maharashtra, while the coastal area of Gujarat is being explored for potential sites.

In the hybrid space, REMCL has invited bids to develop 140 MW of interstate transmission system-connected wind-solar hybrid power projects. The tender involves the setting up of projects across three states. For Western Railway, a 55 MW hybrid project will be installed in Gujarat with 14 MW and 41 MW of solar and wind capacity respectively. A 15 MW plant, comprising 3 MW of solar and 12 MW of wind power, will be set up in Karnataka for South Western Railway. For WCR, a 70 MW capacity project, consisting of 18 MW solar and 52 MW wind, will be installed in Madhya Pradesh. These hybrid projects will be developed on a build-own-operate basis.

Key challenges and the way forward

IR’s overall experience with renewables has been positive so far. However, the maintenance of solar panels installed over a large area has been a challenge for the utility. To this end, the PPP model is being adopted for renewable energy development. The PPP model ensures the implementation of the latest technologies such as compact substations.

To achieve 100 per cent renewable energy use by 2030, the organisation needs to ensure that even smaller stations attract developer interest. It also needs to fulfil its 8 per cent renewable purchase obligation, overcome interstate transmission challenges through open access, implement net metering and attain an optimum energy mix of wind and solar. However, there are several other challenges that need to be addressed.

The feasibility of implementing renewable energy projects for IR depends on various factors such as state policies for renewable energy, specifically those governing net metering and open access. These will directly impact the implementation of its renewable initiatives, especially in the non-traction segment. Another key challenge pertains to load balancing. As solar and wind power are intermittent and variable sources of energy, they require load balancing through energy storage to ensure a constant supply of electricity. However, the currently available technologies for load balancing are not feasible. Hence, IR  will have to build certain internal capabilities in order to decarbonise successfully. These include load forecasting, renewable power management and power trading techniques. REMCL is working on developing these capabilities.

In sum, as IR is the single largest electricity consumer in the country, its renewable energy initiatives are imperative for reducing its fossil fuel uptake. This will also help in meeting the country’s renewable energy target and will have a positive impact on the environment.

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