It may have been the world’s third-largest carbon emitter in 2016, but India is currently experiencing something of a renewables revolution.

At the end of 2016, the Indian Government’s ten-year energy blueprint predicted that a whopping 57% of the country’s total electricity capacity would come from non-fossil fuel sources by 2027, following an increased investment in renewable energy projects.

In the midst of this nationwide rise in renewables is Indian Railways, which aims to secure 25% of its energy requirements from renewable sources by 2025.

This project will be vital for India’s overall carbon reduction goals; Indian Railways operates one of the world’s biggest rail networks and is the single largest consumer of electricity in the country, accounting for almost 2% of India’s total power consumption.

Cutting down on fossil fuels for the sector will have a huge impact on the country’s commitment to renewables, and subsequently the environment. With Indian Railways locomotives reportedly consuming 2.6 billion litres of diesel in 2014,, how is the organisation progressing towards its objective?

Solar powered railways

Early this year, India’s former Minister of Railways, Suresh Prabhu, committed to providing 200MW of power to Indian Railways firm through windfarms. However, with northern states basking in up to 300 sunny days a year, it’s no surprise that Indian Railways’ most important investment will be in solar power.

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By GlobalData

According to a 2017 study funded by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Indian Railways could provide 5GW of solar power to its network through a $3.6bn investment. The organisation has therefore teamed up with the UNDP to make a plan to reach the 5GW milestone, which will involve implementing 3,900MW of utility-scale projects and 1,100MW via rooftop initiatives.

From the utility perspective, Indian Railways has already earmarked 5,000 acres of land deemed unsuitable for commercial purposes to install solar power plants, which could generate up to 500MW for railway stations.

Meanwhile, much of the solar delivery will be achieved through the installation of rooftop panels. In a union budget speech for fiscal year 2017-2018, Indian Finance Minister Arun Jaitley announced that 7,000 Indian railway stations would eventually be fitted with rooftop solar power systems. Jaitley claimed that 300 stations have been fitted with panels already, and that this number is expected to stretch to 2,000 soon.

Solar panels will also be fitted to trains to decrease the energy needed from polluting sources, such as diesel, and rooftop panels on a further 250 trains will be used to power fans and lighting systems. As an indication of the current success of this long-term project, the first solar-powered train was launched from a railway station in Safdarjung, Delhi, in July.

Rail and energy industries working together

Indian Railways is collaborating with numerous contractors to meet its solar power objectives. At the end of September, Indian renewable energy developer Azure Power won a contract to deliver 20MW to the country’s railways through solar rooftop installations. The technology is expected to supply energy to railway facilities across 17 states and union territories for up to 25 years.

“With this win, we have once again demonstrated our strong project development capabilities and are delighted to make this contribution towards the realisation of our honourable Prime Minister’s commitment towards clean and green energy through solar power generation,” said Indrapreet Wadhwa, founder and CEO of Azure Power.

Working in tandem with Azure Power is ABB India, which is currently helping to provide around 40% of the country’s solar power through installations. Now, the company aims to equip 750 Indian Railways stations with solar inverters.

“Supporting our customers to help build the infrastructure for renewable energy all around the world helps drive business’ and government goals to improve energy efficiency and reduce emissions,” said Giovanni Frassineti, head of ABB’s solar business. “Driving the energy revolution in sectors like transportation is a part of ABB’s next level strategy.”

Electrification of railways will also be an important aspect for Indian Railways in achieving its renewable goals. In 2013, oil was said to power two-thirds of India’s rail activity, with electricity accounting for approximately one third. However, near the end of 2016, India launched ‘Mission Electrification’; an initiative to electrify nearly 90% of railway tracks over the next five years.

More electrified tracks will provide more opportunities for solar and wind energy companies, furthering India’s overall goal of reducing its carbon emissions.

Electrifying India: the outlook for success

So will Indian Railways stay the course when it comes to renewable energy?

The project is still ambitious when considering the sheer amount of energy that needs to be generated. With solar power generation only being available for seven or eight hours a day, the path to 5GW will require a large number of projects to come to fruition.

Nevertheless, many are optimistic that India’s total turnaround yields good tidings for its rail aspirations. Overall, India has added 9GW of solar power in the past two years, while solar capacity is said to have increased by an enormous 370% over the past three.

India seems to be taking its role in tackling climate change seriously, and its current leadership amplifies this. In June, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged to achieve emissions reductions beyond the country’s commitments under the Paris climate change agreement, just days after US President Donald Trump withdrew his support for the scheme.

Modi recently appointed Piyush Goyal, former Head of the Ministry and New and Renewable Energy, as the government’s new Minister for Indian Railways. Goyal has already played a pivotal role in achieving overseas investment, including a commitment from Japan’s SoftBank to invest $20bn in Indian renewable energy projects.

Solar and wind energy companies are therefore hoping that this change in leadership will boost renewable energy sources for the rail sector.

“The new railway minister is expected to carry his passion for renewable energy to the ministry and the railways will benefit immensely,” Vinayak Chatterjee, chairman at infrastructure service provider Feedback Infra, told the Economic Times.

It’s yet to be seen whether the effectiveness of solar power matches up to the staggering predictions of government officials. However, with help coming in from abroad, projects already underway and an expert at the helm, it seems Indian Railways is making impressive headway on the path to its renewable energy goals.