Making public transport eco-friendly is a key step in the world's quest to go green. It's often discussed that economic sectors like energy and agriculture need to change in order to drive down emissions, but ultimately fields like transport (alongside fashion) must alter their ways too, as they're also major contributors to emissions.
Of course, using public transport is already a greener option for a community and its residents than using private transport for the same number of people, save for modes like walking or using a classic bicycle - or an electric one charged with clean and green energy - for some pedal-power! Nonetheless, even if the masses using public transport is far less harmful than everyone using private transport via private vehicles, the fact is it's necessary to remove the harm altogether. Solar power can - and already has - been a tremendous help in this regard. So let's look now at how solar power is helping the public transport sector to go green.
A Word on the Pandemic's Impact on Public Transport
It is necessary to recognise at the outset there is an important caveat when it comes to building a closer relationship between solar power and public transport: the Covid-19 pandemic. While it's certain we're today in a far better position than in 2021 or 2020 in terms of the ability of society to live with this virus - with science showing high vaccination rates have undoubtedly made our daily lives safer - the reality is that we're not finished with this pandemic. In turn, there remains many people weary to use public transport out of concern for their health, and also many who no longer need to commute for work as they can now do their job remotely.
Broadly speaking, a key reason for the emergence and ongoing support of public transport systems surrounds their ability to allow people to work in the city, but reside outside of it. Given many people no longer need to travel to work in the CBD - or will take their car if necessary as they don't (yet) feel it's safe for their health to take a train or similar vehicle - it's fair to assume the future of public transport will look very different in years ahead. Some increase in face-to-face work and CBD activity can be expected, but a full 'snap back' to the pre-pandemic state seems outright impossible, as even many businesses which have officially 'returned' to the office now operate via a hybrid model, and don't require staff to work in-person the full 5 days a week. These dynamics do not discount the value found in making public transport greener in a pandemic and post-pandemic world, but they are of course necessary elements to keep in mind.
Defining a New Destination
Anyone who ever toyed around with a video game like the iconic Sim City knows well the challenges of planning a modern city and its infrastructure. Right now, urban planners and other government officials are being tasked with devising a future for public transport that basically looks very different from anything we've seen over the past couple of hundred years. For the first time in centuries, there is a real chance that many once-mighty CBDs will in the years ahead no longer be the focal point of economic activity in their surrounding areas. Instead, such CBDs would become (while still important) just one of many distributed economic 'hubs' in a greater city and its surrounds. On the face of it, it could be said it suddenly seems like all the public transport infrastructure we've built in and around CBDs may not be terribly suited to current needs anymore.
Yet there is a competing argument here. While usage is down, there is an opportunity to study public transport networks in a new way. There is also the ability to devise methods to make the system more effective and efficient, and also offer new services. So, even if the years ahead saw a substantial change to how public transport services in and out of the CBD are offered, in their place could come more economic growth and services among the aforementioned 'satellite' hubs. This could allow workers (whose work indeed requires in-person attendance) to more easily travel to and from work on public transport to these satellite hubs, instead of doing a long commute from home to the CBD of their city, or having to rely on private transport (as they may do currently) because public networks don’t currently offer a viable way to commute to work daily to an existing non-CBD hub.
A Snapshot of Change Across Australia
While a number of conversations surrounding renewables and public transport are about the future and what's set to occur down the line, it's also the case that many green changes have commendably been implemented already - and in really effective ways - here in Australia already by utilising solar power.
In South Australia, Adelaide claimed a world-first all the way back in 2013 when it put the first solar-powered bus on the road. A rooftop solar system located at Adelaide's Central Bus Station has provided solar energy to drive the vehicle following commencement of the route under green power. Similarly, Queensland announced it had put its own solar-powered bus on the road during 2021, servicing the Redlands area to the East of Brisbane, the bus owned and operated by Transdev Australasia acquires its solar power from the company's depot at Capalaba.
Furthermore, in Victoria, Melbourne's iconic tram network is today already 100% offset by renewable energy. Additionally, the Victorian government announced in July 2022 that 100kW of solar panels had been installed and brought online on the roof of the tram depot in Southbank, which is the first of seven depots planned to hold rooftop solar systems. The site has 200 panels, which produces over 550MW annually, which aid in powering depot operations.
When the Plan and What's Possible Converge
Presently, the dream for green public transport is clearly visible. Everyone can recognise the value in this dream being fulfilled. This said, it's also the case that there are barriers today to achieving the ideal outcomes in this area - yet these barriers are not expected to remain for long. An example of this surrounds the utilisation of solar panels on different types of public transport vehicles. Given their length and weight, trains of course present a different challenge in terms of powering their journey in contrast to buses. So, while buses running only on solar power have already found their way into existence, it will take time before we can see trains look to compete with this progress. Not the least of which because - while some train networks have clearance on and above train rooftops which would allow for solar panels to be installed on future models - some trains presently operate on tracks with overhanging (and directly connected) cables, which could complicate attempts to introduce trains with rooftop solar panels on such networks.
We have actually already seen the first train running with solar panels on its roof make its way into existence in Australia, in Byron Bay. While more akin to a fun pet project than a clear-cut demonstration of contemporary capability, it does provide a window into the future here in the Great Southern Land. Furthermore, solar panels are already in use on trains in India, providing the power needed to serve the train's utilities like air conditioning. Ultimately, just as the ongoing advancement of solar power technology will increase the scope for what's possible when it comes to using solar panels directly on trains, in the meantime it can be anticipated that solar farms will serve as key components in helping train networks go green in the near-term. Just as Victoria has done with solar farms for their tram network, already there are a number of locales around the world which have looked to solar farms to assist in making their train networks green - and more progress is planned in the time ahead!
All Aboard for a New Era
There remains many unknowns surrounding the future of public transport, but just as real challenges must be acknowledged, so too should great opportunity.
Overall, there is also no argument about the value in seeing public transport go green. Public transport is already a greener option for cities in terms of mass transport, with a train or tram polluting far less when transporting the same amount of people than if they were each travelling in separate private vehicles. Nonetheless, there's still room for improvement. In turn, if the reduction in use of public transport seen since the pandemic remains in the years ahead, that will also allow for the creation of a leaner and greener system. This could be better for the bottom line of a government's budget, and for the health of our environment.
Just as we all aspire to see public transport go green in the future, it's important to also never lose sight of what we can do here and now, at a small - but still significant! - level. Rooftop solar systems can deliver a real difference when it comes to making a household's operations greener. Additionally, there are a number of other ways in which a household can pursue smart solutions to make their home more enjoyable and eco-friendly. Finally, there are also many ways in which not only households but local communities can pursue positive green change. For instance, by looking to contact their local council and advocate for more greenery and native plants to be installed around the area, so not only are local neighbourhoods made more enjoyable to use, but more sustainable too.
Solar Trust Centre's aim is to highlight the latest and most interesting solar industry news, with a bias towards Australian stories. For more renewable energy content, please check out our blogs here.