Crossing through swathes of dense forest, running past residential areas and alongside a highway, it was necessary to construct a tunnel around the track in order to protect people and wildlife, safeguard the railway from falling tress and to reduce noise pollution.
But when the structure was completed in 2009, it was not the end of the journey, as a spark of inspiration struck Luc Martens of Solar Power Systems (SPS), leading to an innovative project carried out on a grand scale: the Solar Tunnel was born.
He described the moment a thought flashed through his mind, as he took he daily commute through the tunnel: “Having watched the construction of the tunnel, creating 50,000m2 of flat space, a light bulb of inspiration switched on: why could the tunnel not be used to create green energy?”
Though it was originally his idea, Mr Martens also credits Richard Marcelis of Infrabel with “the commitment, knowledge and drive” which took the idea through to realisation, saying “I have the highest esteem and gratitude for him.”
Chloé van Driessche, spokeswoman for Infrabel, explained to Premier Construction how the project progressed.
Once the contacts between SPS and Infrabel had been established by the end of 2008, Infrabel undertook the necessary feasibility studies regarding the ecological impact of the project and the financial situation. When it was confirmed that the solar tunnel could become a reality, the partnership was cemented by the creation of the company SPS Fin. SPS Fin is an incorporation of Infrabel, Enfinity and the financial departments of the communities of Schoten and Brasschaat where the tunnel is located. Enfinity are a large Belgian-based, international firm who provided a large portion of the finance, as well as design, engineering, site-co-ordination and now maintenance services.
Heading into 2010 the necessary ‘green certificates’ were procured, along with finance, from the government, and work commenced in September 2010.
The works involved the installation of 16,000 photo-voltaic panels, each at a 245W capacity, over a total surface area of 50,000m2. It is estimated that the panels will generate a combined total of 3,300Mwh, equal to the average electricity consumption of nine hundred and fifty households.
“The installation was quite easy because there is just one flat platform to work on. Actually, we stood on the roof at a press event in September 2010 and the workers were progressing so quickly that we were asked to move because we were in the way.”
By December, installation was complete and the solar farm operational and connected. However, at this point it was only wired up to the rail infrastructure services, meaning that the energy was only used to power lighting, screen displays, heating and signaling. It was in June 2011 that a new connection was created so that the energy was powering trains, both standard and high-speed.
The energy is now distributed and managed by Infrabel, who buy all the generated electricity and then sell it on to the companies who use it. In Belgium there are three companies who run the railway networks: Infrabel, who are responsible for the infrastructure; SNBC who operate the train services; and SNBC Holdings who run the main stations and manage the administration for all three companies. Miss Van Driessche explained that each of these firms required the generated energy for their operations.
She also said that using the solar energy to actually power the trains was a momentous step forward:
“This is a milestone for Belgium and for the whole of Europe,” she said. “People have talked about the possibility of solar-powered trains for years, but with the idea of putting solar panels on the train. Now we have solar trains but without having to do any work on the actual trains, which is a big advantage. Also, the trains can run on a normal electricity supply at night.
“When people get on a train they are travelling in an ecologically friendly way because they are using public transport, but it does still use a lot of energy so we hope to continue in making that energy-use greener.”
She said that the Solar Tunnel had received great support from the local communities in the municipalities of Schoten and Brasschaat, but said that Infrabel hoped the enthusiasm for green energy would spread further within the Belgian rail network and internationally.
“We are considering carrying out other similar projects,” she said, “but we can’t comment on them now because we still have lots of feasibility studies to do. There is no other site which offers such a great opportunity as the tunnel, but there are many other projects that we are looking into.”
Furthermore, the Solar Tunnel has received great interest from the international community, and Miss Van Driessche said that Infrabel are hoping to see authorities in many more countries exploring similar possibilities.
“This is a very interesting story,” she said, “and a project that progresses very quickly. Obviously you have to look at the individual situation in each country, but we hope that this will generate other ideas.”
“Solar is a relatively new technology on this scale”, said head of Enfinity UK Bart van adding that it still needs some incentives. “However, photovoltaic generating costs have fallen by 30% to 40% in the past three years, and it is hoped that more large scale developments will bring further cost reductions so subsidies are not required for similar projects by 2015-16; according to van Renterghem, parity has already been achieved in southern Italy, where there is more sun” he added.
Infrabel is responsible for the management, maintenance, renewal and development of the Belgian railway network. The company is also responsible for train routes allocation for all Belgian and foreign operators. Infrabel was established on 1 January 2005, when Belgian Railways was broken up, and is part of the SNCB Group. The company now employs some 12,500 people with a turnover of approximately 1 billion euro (2009).
The company’s mission is to provide railway operators with a competitive railway infrastructure, which is well adapted to both current and future demands.
It aims at making an active contribution to provide lasting mobility within the European railway network, thus benefiting the economic and social development in Belgium.
In order to make Belgium the hub of Europe, Infrabel aspires to: Introduce optimal reliability and accessibility across the network; develop high performance technology and ensure the highest possible level of integration with other transport modes.
Enfinity is an established leader in renewable energy. Enfinity develops, finances, constructs and operates photovoltaic solar and wind energy plants. Besides its own project development, Enfinity sells integrated solar installations to companies and individuals and acts as an EPC contractor. Founded in Belgium, Enfinity has operations and projects across Europe and has expanded into North America and Asia-Pacific.
Enfinity has 5 business divisions: Develop, Invest, Technics, Trade & Power
Enfinity Develop is an important international player in developing renewable energy projects including photovoltaic energy (PV systems) and wind energy. Enfinity Develop has evolved a very strong competence in sustainable approaches for renewable energies implementation.
Enfinity Invest has developed a leading international position in financing solar and wind energy projects. Its extensive experience, strong international network and good reputation with financial institutions and investors make Enfinity Invest a reliable and professional player in the renewable energy industry.
Enfinity Technics delivers and installs large solar power installations for the business market and has a broad knowledge of and extensive experience in various technologies in the field of solar power installations.
Enfinity Trade delivers ready-made solar energy plants for the residential and business market.
Inspired Energy: Solar Power Systems
Solar Power Systems was incorporated by Luc Martens in 2008, and after just three years now turn over €21 million as they pursue what Mr Martens calls their “mission”, to install PV panels on everything from domestic and commercial buildings to vast projects like the solar tunnel, where they adopt a holistic approach.
Currently, Solar Power Systems install solar panels on five homes in an average day and on one business’s buildings a month. However they report a significant increase in interest since their involvement on the solar tunnel, with lots of customers seeking them out a reliable partner for their PV investments, which many see as the prize possession on their property.
Mr Martens says that the high-profile solar tunnel has impacted dramatically on the importance that Belgians ascribed to green energy, saying is has also “raised awareness of the importance of qualified suppliers and where to find them.”
Solar Power Systems have certainly proven their credentials as a driver behind the solar tunnel. They prepared the functional, technical and organisation road books as well as filing for the available subsidies necessary for the work to take place.
Now their innovation and experience is spreading the inspiration through the Belgian population and marking them out as the foremost supplier in the industry.
Luc Martens says that the firm is eager to continue to push both its own growth and the increase in renewable energy in Europe: “We are analysing further collaboration with the partners of this beautiful project,” he says, adding, “SPS is constantly looking for partners to continue our exponential growth and to ensure the future of generations to come.”
E-morrow is primarily a construction company that is currently focused on Belgium; however it aims to expand outside of Europe. They install a wide range of solar panels, including monocrystalline, polycrystalline and amorphous solar panels.
Jurgen Himschoot from E-morrow said: “We will be an EPC contractor, we will do engineering procurement, and we will construct complete renewable energy packages – wind energy, biomass installation, solar panels, you name it.”
E-morrow played a very important role in the Solar Tunnel project. They executed the DC connection for the project, installing 16,000 modules on the tunnel roof over a length measuring 3.5km. These solar cells will supply enough energy for 4,000 trains a year.
Jurgen Himschoot said: “We are an organised and flexible company. We do the thinking together with the customer, and want to share our knowledge with our clients.
E morrow is a company of healthy contrasts: we have tons of experience, but our ideas are always fresh and innovative. We are a young company, yet pioneers in our profession. We have a solid foundation, but are always in search of greater efficiency. In short: we’re always on the move – for your business and your customers.
Together, we’re heading for a bright future.”
For more information on e-morrow, visit www.e-morrow.com