A rising sun: solar solutions for public transport

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As the public transport sector ramps up its decarbonisation efforts by shifting towards electric mobility, many may wonder where that electricity is actually going to come from. After all, an electric vehicle is only as green as the electricity that powers it.

In a world where energy demand is expected to grow by 20-35% over the next 15 years alone, major efforts will be required to meet this demand and to do so in a sustainable fashion. The production and use of energy currently accounts for around two-thirds of global emissions and though the source of electricity remains outside the control of public transport companies, the sector is beginning to take matters into its own hands. 

Thanks to solar, more and more cities are harnessing the power of the sun in an effort to decarbonise. Morocco, which hosted the recent COP22 climate talks, has invested in a 1 MW solar farm, based on High Concentration PhotoVoltaics technology, that will help power Marrakesh’s new electric buses on the city’s Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) network, whilst in Uganda the ‘Kayoola’ solar-powered bus has an autonomy of up to 80km running on two power banks.

Meanwhile, in Dubai, transport authority RTA recently announced the launch of a solar-powered ‘abra’ boat that has been converted from standard electric operation to solar thanks to solar panels attached to the roof. It is the first of its kind in the Middle East and it comes on the back of news that the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) has awarded a $1m grant for solar-powered waterborne transport in the MENA region.

Melbourne is also following suit, with the recent announcement that its tram network will run exclusively on solar thanks to newly built solar farms, powering the Australian city’s 400 trams and saving 80,000 tonnes of CO² annually in the process. Meanwhile, Costa Rica, which already sources 98% of its energy sustainably, announced plans to integrate renewable power, including solar, into its transport sector.

'Affordable, inexhaustible and clean’ 

According to the International Energy Agency, solar offers an ‘affordable, inexhaustible and clean’ source of energy that can rolled-out on a global scale and not just in sunnier climes.

Solar power helps power real time passenger information at bus stops in London and ticket machines in New York. It is also being used extensively on rail networks: Phoenix Valley Metro recently unveiled a solar-powered plant that is helping to power its depot and in Japan, JR East has launched its first large-scale solar power generation facility that will help to power trains, reducing CO2 emissions by about 500 tonnes annually.

Stricter environmental standards are beginning to make coal less viable, according to a report from the New Climate Economy. Indeed, the cost of solar has fallen by half since 2010 and solar photovoltaic (PV) electricity and wind power can be less costly than new coal-fired plants.

A potential source of revenue

The potential for growth is enormous: annual solar energy is several times greater than the world’s total energy consumption according to the UN. Solar also has the advantage of being cheaper than fossil fuels, opening up the prospect for developing countries to ‘leapfrog’ from diesel-powered transport to fully-renewable energy. As solar begins to take off, it also opens up potential new revenue streams enabling public transport companies to sell surplus energy back to the grid. 

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