SunTrain is a revolutionary model for the distribution of stored, renewable energy. By utilizing the existing freight rail infrastructure, battery banks enclosed in forty-foot shipping containers would bypass the overtaxed transmission network and deliver gigawatts of stored electricity from the renewable energy abundant rural regions of America to densely populated, energy-hungry metropolitan areas.
The intermittency of renewable energy has pushed America’s aging electrical grid to the breaking point. Viable forms of renewable energy only support the electrical grid during limited sunlight hours, which has stifled the development of renewable energy throughout the US and caused dangerous energy oversupply issues during the daytime. While energy storage is the intuitive solution, the utility scale energy storage industry is marred by limited real estate and the lack of affordable, excess energy on the local distribution network for recharging batteries that are deployed for electrical grid support. The present energy storage capacity of the US is 899 megawatt hours, or about .00002% of what is necessary to have the grid powered by 100% renewables in 2050.
Renewable energy intermittency and storage issues are solved by harnessing renewable energy from the vast, vacant expanses of rural America directly to shipping container enclosed battery banks affixed to rail cars. These “SunTrains'' are transported to power plants and substations in densely populated regions by rail. By constructing utility scale renewable energy generation facilities removed from urban environments, regularly scheduled SunTrains would resolve intermittency issues and provide baseload power. SunTrains bypass the compound issues of transmission line bottlenecks and limited real estate in urban areas. By storing renewable energy generated from grid-independent solar arrays, pressure is removed from the grid and overburdened transmission lines. Instead, energy is distributed by existing infrastructure using the world’s most advanced freight rail system. This avoids transmission line loss and increases the round trip efficiency of energy storage technologies.
SunTrain is immediately deployable with minimal technology risks or regulatory concerns. It uses existing energy sale agreements and readily available solar/energy storage technologies that are already approved for SunTrain electrical applications. The energy storage system hauled by a SunTrain utilizes currently commercialized batteries that are already manufactured at economies of scale. There are no technology risks or regulatory concerns pertaining to the hauling of shipping container enclosed battery banks or their electrical connection to trackside infrastructure. In fact, since most SunTrain charge/discharge operations will not cross state lines, FERC regulations will generally not apply. Once the SunTrain service has been launched, new proprietary technologies, such as a third rail charge/discharge system, can be developed and implemented to improve efficiency and enhance its defensible intellectual property position. This will help ensure the SunTrain remains the market leader in the sale of stored, utility scale, renewable energy.
The market for dispatching stored, renewable energy to the nation’s electrical grid is in its infancy. The limited amount of battery-based stored energy currently provides only temporary relief to the nation’s overstressed and antiquated infrastructure. When the grid fails, existing energy storage infrastructure provides only a single cycle of energy. Furthermore, the location and energy source of utility scale energy storage does little to affect intermittency because the batteries are charged from the same grid the stored energy is attempting to support. Off-grid renewable energy hauled by freight trains and dispatched to the grid is inexpensive, reliable and lucrative. Since the US energy storage industry is underdeveloped and the SunTrain concept is new, there are presently no known competitors. By 2050, it is estimated that there must be sufficient storage capacity to power the entire nation for a day. This amounts to approximately 16,000 gigawatt hours of stored energy. Of this stored energy, 70% would be from decentralized energy and other forms of utility scale storage. SunTrain would be an effective solution for the remaining 30%, delivering up to 4,800 gigawatts of energy storage daily or 5,000 daily SunTrains.
The railroad industry hauls significant energy commodities including coal, crude oil, and ethanol, to meet US energy requirements. In 2019, the industry delivered the following number of carloads: 3 million coal, 214,000 crude oil, and 400,000 ethanol. The drive to electrify the transportation sector and decarbonize the electrical generation sector will decimate these totals. Between 2020 and 2030, the railroad industry will have lost five billion dollars in revenue due to the transition from coal alone. SunTrain provides a clean and sustainable means to both continue and expand its traditional role as a distribution system for energy commodities. Presently, only about 1000 freight trains operate daily and 7,820 locomotives are in storage, because shifting population and economic centers have left many rail lines underutilized. The addition of 5,000 SunTrains would not push railroad infrastructure past capacity but, instead, would create a pathway for the rail sector to recover lost revenue from energy commodities and would offer an opportunity for significant expansion.
Utility scale solar arrays connected to freight railroads allow for a wide range of energy applications and customer types. These range from investor-owned utilities, community choice aggregators, government organizations, ports-of-call, data centers, and any commercial or industrial building with an adjacent or nearby rail spur. In addition, if the grid becomes inoperable for days or even weeks, SunTrains could rapidly provide relief, support first responders, and restore essential services. Providing customers energy-storage-as-a-service without extensive upfront capital investments would fundamentally redefine the energy storage industry. The energy industry is already well served by existing rail infrastructure. Through simple low-cost interconnections via adjacent railroad tracks, SunTrains could seamlessly discharge energy into the local grid to provide baseload power. This would enable investor-owned utilities to meet stringent renewable energy portfolio and natural disaster resiliency standards and provide commercial customers affordable uninterrupted power in virtually any condition.