From wind power to solar energy, older technologies are consistently finding new ways to utilize modern energy sources that could help achieve sustainability and advance the global infrastructure. One of those innovations, from 2017, flew under the proverbial radar.

That would be the Byron Bay Train line running in New South Wales, Australia, serving the town of Byron Bay. This upscale, beach tourist town draws two million annual visitors for its beaches, lighthouses, surfing, seafood, diving and all manner of oceanside recreation.

Seeking to offer convenient transportation within the town between the North Beach and Byron Beach neighborhoods, a private non-profit invested in the refurbishment of 3 km of century-old disused rail lines. The Byron Bay Railroad Co. also fixed up a 1940s era railcar and trailer car, with seating for 100. A main goal for the project was to harness Byron Bay's ample sunshine as the energy source for the train. That work meant installing solar panels and energy storage systems at points along the rail corridor and replacing one of the railcar's two diesel engines with a pair of traction motors and traction inverters, as well as a lithium-ion power bank. One diesel engine remains for emergency power only.

The train and its maintenance shed have been outfitted with solar panels, together producing more than 35 kW. The company says only 23% of generated power is used for train operations; the rest is fed into the grid. A regenerative braking system also recovers some kinetic energy. The train is completely powered by lithium-ion power and all lighting is now LED. These energy saving measures mean the train can complete 12 to 15 runs before needing to be recharged.

On December 16, 2017, the Byron Bay Railway Company inaugurated the world's first fully solar-powered train. The train has room for 92 passengers, plus baggage, bikes or cargo. Travel times are 25 minutes from North Beach to Byron Beach, but only 10 minutes on the return.

The Byron Bay Railway Company's successful trial has sparked interest about the potential for solar-powered train transportation. This groundbreaking technology is set to revolutionize travel and has set a precedent for more sustainable, green transportation solutions in the future.

[Learn more about solar energy systems on GlobalSpec.]

Other trains have followed

The use of renewable energy to power trains is becoming increasingly common around the world. A fleet of wind turbines successfully energizes the entire Dutch national railway network, showcasing the limitless possibilities for renewable energy sources to fuel large-scale transportation. Likewise, India has rolled out solar trains that deploy rooftop solar panels to provide illumination and air conditioning in their carriages and operate other onboard services.

In addition, scientists at Imperial College London and 10:10 Climate Action recently released a report stating that up to 10% of rail routes currently running in the U.K. could be powered by solar energy. The short route of this Byron Bay Rail train made it a perfect trial for using renewable sources to power rail transport, demonstrating its potential for scalability and extension to other routes.

The increasing prevalence of trains powered by renewable energy serves as an example of how countries can create more sustainable transportation systems.

Solar power for cars?

The potential for solar power for transportation is immense and has been largely overlooked. With the rising cost of petroleum and increasing carbon emissions, solar power offers a unique opportunity to reduce dependency on fossil fuels while taking advantage of a virtually limitless source of clean, renewable energy.

The use of solar-powered vehicles is still in its infancy, but there have been some promising advances and developments in recent years. One of the most promising applications of solar power in transportation is its use in powering electric cars. Solar energy can be used to charge an electric car’s battery during the day and provide a source of power throughout the night. This allows for extended range and increased efficiency. Cars powered by solar may still rely on traditional fueling sources for longer trips or unexpected needs, but overall, they can significantly reduce their dependence on fossil fuels.

Several companies worldwide have begun producing prototype cars powered solely by the sun’s rays, with one model already commercially available in the U.S. -- the Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid features a solar roof. Other solar-powered vehicles, such as boats and planes, are also being developed.

Widespread implementation of solar electric vehicles has been limited to concepts, mostly, as the slow charging nature of the vehicles means that the technology lacks practicality for everyday or commuting applications.

Other potential solar power applications in transportation include buses that use photovoltaic cells to generate electricity instead of relying on diesel engines.

A shift coming in sustainable transportation?

Solar power is becoming increasingly affordable and efficient, making it an attractive option for unique, innovative projects like this one. We're excited to see what comes next from this groundbreaking project.

Time will tell if the Byron Bay train remains a novelty, or if it is the precursor to a larger movement of renewable-powered rail networks.