Battery-powered electric freight trains could run out

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The Intertubes lit up like a bonfire last month when US automaker Wabtec introduced the all-new all-electric locomotive for freighting in North America, so imagine what could happen if hundreds, if not thousands, of Battery-powered electric freight trains suddenly burst. on rails. It might not happen overnight, but it could happen sooner than you think.

Battery-powered electric freight trains

Diesel freight trains have a relatively good carbon emissions record, so to speak. However, there is always room for improvement, especially when a climate crisis is looming and environmental justice issues are involved. The emission advantage of diesel freight trains will also begin to evaporate when battery and fuel cell trucks begin to enter the freight transport market.

So far, however, battery-powered electric freight trains have proven to be an elusive target. Among other factors, skeptics cite logistical problems, including long journeys and the lack of charging infrastructure.

Still, some activity around battery-powered electric freight trains has started to move. Wabtec’s new battery-electric locomotive, for example, will make its first runs on a 139-mile route from the outskirts of Pittsburgh, Pa. To the town of Conneaut, Ohio, capped by the latest iteration of diesel locomotives. the company’s fuel efficient. The diesel-electric combo may disappoint electrification fans, but Wabtec still expects an overall reduction in emissions of 30%, which is no small potato.

Fuel cells offer another route to electrification. Sierra Northern Railroad in California, for example, recently won a grant to build a fuel cell electric locomotive for freight applications. It will be limited to working in a rail yard, but switching locomotives can travel many miles per day, so the emissions savings could add up.

The light at the end of the tunnel

Given this state of affairs, it may seem that the dream of battery-powered electric freight trains is still a dream. However, a team of researchers from the US Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has just released a study indicating that it may be cost effective to convert the national fleet of diesel freight trains to battery power, and it could be accomplished in just a few years.

You can get all the juicy details in the log Natural energy under the title, “Economic, environmental and network resilience benefits of converting diesel trains to battery electric trains,”But the main thing is simple. As explained by Berkeley Lab in a press release last week, the US rail freight industry is already halfway to electrification because nearly all diesel freight trains in the United States are already electrically powered.

“Unlike many other parts of the world, all freight trains in the United States are still diesel-electric, in large part because the typical electrification strategy of building electrified lines on tracks is more difficult to implement. works in the United States with its great distances, ”explains Berkeley Lab.

“In diesel-electric trains, a diesel engine is connected to an alternator which then supplies electricity to electric motors connected to the axles of the locomotive. It is therefore possible to modernize trains so that they are powered by batteries, because diesel-electric trains already have an electric motor, ”adds the laboratory.

The case for a rapid switch to battery-powered electric freight trains

Natalie Popovich, lead author of the study, points out that speed is the name of the game. She also notes that environmental justice is a strong motivation to wean the country’s freight trains off diesel, as well as the prospects for it. an overall reduction in carbon emissions.

Diesel locomotive emissions represent only a small fraction of overall air pollution in the United States, but the impact falls disproportionately on vulnerable communities near freight stations.

“Our analysis shows that a switch to battery-electric freight will cut the industry’s annual carbon dioxide emissions by more than half, eliminating more than 400 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide in 20 years,” said Popovich.

“A rapid conversion of the rail freight sector is not only technically feasible and profitable, it would bring immediate and lasting health and economic benefits to low-income communities,” she added, “and it would give a boost. boost our country’s efforts to fight climate change, especially since the capacity of US freight railways is expected to double by 2050. “

The key factor that supports the authors’ conclusion is the sharp and continuing decline in the cost of lithium-ion batteries.

“At short-term battery prices, battery-powered electric trains can achieve parity with diesel-electric trains if environmental costs are included or if rail companies can access wholesale electricity prices and reach 40% d ‘use of fast charging infrastructure,’ they write. “Accounting for reduced criteria atmospheric pollutants and CO2 emissions, switching to battery electric propulsion would save the US rail freight industry $ 94 billion over 20 years.

The cost of the battery is not the only factor. Another element is the relatively large size of the locomotives. Reducing the weight and size of batteries is a critical issue for electric cars and trucks, but battery-powered electric freight trains could work with technology that places more emphasis on range and power.

The many advantages of battery power

Despite the long distances traveled by the US rail freight network, the study also notes that freight trains only average 150 miles per day. This is another factor opening up the possibility of replacing diesel with batteries.

“A battery-powered freight train would use half the energy required by a diesel-electric train, and given the drop in battery prices and the environmental costs of diesel, battery-electric trains are on the way to becoming be more competitive than diesel-electric. trains ”, explains the laboratory.

As for recharging times, the study indicates that the centralized nature of the railway infrastructures would make it possible to create economies of scale for investing in rapid recharging stations.

The study also notes other benefits. The batteries can be housed in modular tender cars, which could be unhitched and used for back-up power and other situations where a large, zero-emission mobile power source would be useful.

Battery-powered tank cars could also be used to reduce emissions at container ports and aboard container ships.

Amol Phadke, corresponding author of the study, notes that “converting the US freight rail industry to battery power would generate around 220 gigawatt hours of mobile storage.” It also translates into net benefits for freight train operators.

“This mobile energy storage capacity would also create a potential new revenue stream for freight rail operators,” Phadke explains.

The Berkeley Lab team also notes that battery upgrades on a diesel-electric locomotive could be accomplished without abandoning the diesel portion of the system, so diesel fuel would still be available in case a secondary fuel source was needed.

“This dual fuel capability, allowing the use of batteries or diesel, is a unique advantage over the full electrification of the freight rail system or the use of hydrogen fuel cells,” notes the lab.

Next steps for zero-emission locomotives

The study does not indicate any significant obstacles, but the devil is still in the details. The next steps will involve additional study as well as demonstration projects on a scale large enough to cover the charging infrastructure.

Meanwhile, our friends from Age of the railway Note that battery-powered tank wagons for battery-powered electric freight trains are already available. A standard freight wagon chassis would do the trick, with a few modifications.

Lithium-ion batteries are not the only option for battery-powered electric freight trains. Age of the railway cites flux batteries as an emerging option, and they could offer duration and lifecycle advantages over lithium-ion technology.

If you have any ideas on this, drop us a note in the comment thread.

Follow me on twitter @TinaMCasey.

Photo: Battery electric locomotive courtesy of Wabtec.

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