Solar Project: A Bit Over The Top

Although I passionately support alternative energy developments, I’ll admit it sometimes seems wasteful investing in large-scale projects based on renewable sources. The image above sort of looks like a race track, but is actually one very large solar panel installation project recently completed. Approximately 16,000 individual panels were installed along a two-mile long stretch of train tunnel rooftop for the Belgian railway connecting Paris to Amsterdam.

At a cost just over $20 million the expected energy output is 3.5Mw/hours per year. That supposedly will power the entire Belgian train system for the equivalent of one day each year (0.0027% of annual energy use). Since this appears to be a very small impact, I hope the project engineers did their calculations correctly. Without  detailed information, questions come to my mind regarding this project. How much energy from coal and oil went into the production of all those solar panels? Ignoring the financial cost-benefit, will 3.5Mw/hours per year be enough over the useful lifetime of the installation to offset the investment?

Perhaps it is all a matter of perception. A few panels on a home that provides significant results seems like a strong investment. You could then multiply that by 16,000 homes and be proud about using renewable energy. Taking the same investment and applying it to operations that consume the most power, such as this massive transportation grid, we are forced to change our expectations. Global energy needs can reach such astronomical numbers that even making a small impact (powering the railway for one day each year) can actually be very substantial.

If the United States ever reaches a position to invest in high-speed train infrastructure, the project and economy would likely benefit from producing similar renewable energy support. In a world of extreme engineering where bridges cost billions of dollars and transportation systems need constant maintenance, this over the top solar project looks affordable and promising.

Who benefits and who pays is typically the center of debate. Which projects have you been in support of recently? Do small local investments seem better than larger, more costly ones?

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