Energy Management on the Railway

11 December 2018
Image of a speeding train.
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With tackling climate change at the forefront of world science strategies and discussions, we are in the midst of an exciting, yet challenging era for engineering. Now rail electrical power engineers have the ideal opportunity to take a lead on energy management.

It’s been 200 years since the industrial revolution, which kick-started a culture that saw humans release unnatural amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, significantly altering the climate of our planet.

The relevance and importance of tackling the impact of climate change is now at the heart of scientific and political debates, most recently at the G20 in Buenos Aires, where the signatories of the Paris Climate Agreement reaffirmed their commitment to it whilst the US remained opposed to it.

It is common to point fingers at other nations when it comes to tackling climate change, but when you look at the carbon output of the UK (currently nearly 5,000 kW per person, per year) and consider this output over the last 200 years, we are only second to the US, ahead of China, in contribution to the total damage inflicted on our atmosphere.

Why we need to take the lead

Transport is the biggest cause of CO2 emissions by quite some margin – it consumes 38% of energy and accounts of 26% of greenhouse gas emissions. The climate change levy introduced in 2011 has not done enough to combat this, and it is now the role of large corporations, infrastructure owners and entrepreneurs to take more responsibility.

Network Rail committed to reduce its carbon emissions by 11% over CP5, and has therefore pushed for continuous improvements in energy efficiency through a framework of formal energy and carbon management programmes. This includes use of low carbon energy sources and use of whole-life costing techniques to future-proof low carbon development and design.

Most recently, our ‘bible’ for electrical design, BS7671, now includes an entirely new appendix devoted to energy efficiency in the 18th edition, due to come into force in January 2019. This means through every stage of rail design, construction, operation and maintenance, we need to have these principles at the forefront of our mind. It will be challenging, but exciting for engineers designing the future power systems for our rail network.

The key steps

The first action to take when assessing the new opportunities will, unsurprisingly, remain a focus on energy conservation. Elimination of waste can be accomplished through use of sensors and timers to turn electrical systems off and on accordingly, and through the management of our own behaviours, instilled through giving ownership of energy management decisions to local teams.

The next priority is to optimise efficiency in the way that energy is produced and consumed, introducing more efficient power transformers or heating technology, as well as looking to renewable sources such as solar and wind.

These are arguably the basics. What is also fundamental to effective management is a forensic understanding of power consumption. Use of load and supply monitoring equipment is key to appreciating consumption and behaviours and allows designers to optimise their selection of power distribution equipment.

For example, if a designer performs a detailed analysis of the interlocking and route-setting impacts on signalling equipment usage, it can avoid overestimating requirements, which would otherwise lead to oversized cables, UPS equipment and transformers. Supply quality monitoring will complement this by allowing mitigation of the losses in power associated with harmonic distortion, abnormal aging of equipment and other issues that impact energy efficiency.

This is just one example and, in a short blog series on LinkedIn, I will be sharing other examples of how we can create more effective energy management designs for low voltage supplies in the rail industry in areas including renewable energy, lighting and heating, signalling power, points heating and distribution cables. The principles I’ll explore can also apply to higher voltage supplies used for powering electric trains via contact electrification systems.

How we move forward

The biggest challenge to tackling climate change and improving energy management remains the level of motivation within industry and the general public. We are still recovering from the 2008 financial crisis so it is understandable that focus has been on the here and now rather than the future.

Media representation of the climate change arguments, with dramatic headlines, has also impacted the space and ability for us to have a reasoned and calm discussion of the information we are provided with.

However, ongoing financial pressures are now proving to be a blessing in disguise to those pushing for stronger climate change measures. Ultimately, someone has to pay the bill and, faced with increasing costs for every wasted litre of fuel or watt of energy, governments and transport chiefs now need to act.

In rail power, the cheapest and easiest option by far is to develop our understanding of what equipment we are supplying and how it interacts, which will allow us to adopt a smarter way of controlling it. By taking small steps, and introducing innovative solutions, we can have a big impact on a major issue, becoming the rail engineers for our grandchildren’s future.

To read more about the innovative solutions rail power can offer, follow Lee on LinkedIn


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