The Dutch run their trains on 100% wind power, why can’t we do that?

On the 11th of January 2017 the Dutch transport company NS (Nederlandse Spoorwegen) announced that 100% of its trains, and therefore all of the trains in the Netherlands run on renewable wind power [1]. When I read this I thought, ‘If the Netherlands can do this, then why can’t Britain, the windiest country in Europe?’

turbine
Wind Turbines in Holland

The obvious answer would be to build more turbines, but this is not the case. Firstly, the Dutch train transport sector is considerably smaller than the British with an annual consumption of 1.2 billion kWh of electricity [1]. Whereas in the UK, only 51% of the trains have been electrified with the remainder still being run on diesel or coal [3]. I used some calculations and consequently worked out that the electrical equivalent on the UK’s railways is over 12.1 billion kWh per year as of 2015 [4]. Using this information and data from the European Wind Energy Association [5] on turbine output and efficiency we can determine that in order to power the entire Dutch railroad system only 200 turbines will be needed, of which the country currently has over 2,200 [6]. The UK on the other hand would need approximately 2033 turbines of which there are already 13,614 in place as of 2015 [7].

That was quite a lot of numbers, but it illustrates my point of why there are no immediately obvious reasons of why the UK cannot keep up with the Netherlands in providing sustainable public transport. However, I personally believe it’s to do with the current infrastructure in both countries. The majority of the UK’s railroads are designed for diesel trains and so do not have the overhead cables directly supplying electricity plus many of our trains run on inefficient diesel engines. The cost of electrifying these rails is huge, with £4 billion being put aside in 2014 to convert just 11% of existing railways [3].

train
One of the NS Electric Trains

In a post-Brexit world where the UK’s economy is potentially facing difficult times, the electrification of the railways is probably not the department of transports biggest issue. The Dutch have been working towards this goal of 100% renewable train electricity for over 10 years, and consequently have been developing the infrastructure as they go along. I guess this means that the UK still has a long way to go.

 

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