By Noel T, Braymer

Elon Musk has been in the news again, this time recently introducing an electric Semi-Tractor Truck with a range of 500 miles. He is now accepting orders of this new truck for delivery in 2019. This is similar to his roll out of his Model 3 Tesla car last year which was suppose to be in full production this year but is having problems doing so. When it comes to electric Semi-Tractors, Musk already has competition from several other companies which rolled out their prototypes before his with more to come. Just as relevant, there are several companies including Proterra and BYD, both with factories in California building electric buses which can be in service all day on a single charge. Auto manufacturers around the world are busy testing and planning roll outs of new electric cars so to not be left behind by the competition. Several countries have announced plans to ban sales of internal combustion cars in the near future with the goal of most vehicles in the future being electric.The largest country that will ban internal combustion vehicles in the future is China which will have the largest car market in the world in the near future.

Why will we see so many more electric vehicles in the near future? Electric vehicles are very clean, emitting zero pollution. Many people who have a need for speed are discovering that electric cars can out accelerate gasoline cars and take turns at higher speeds with a lower center of gravity than conventional cars. But the main reason there will be more people buying electric vehicles is they are cheaper to operate and in the near future will be cheaper to buy. Electric cars use less energy than gasoline cars and cost less to travel per mile. Electric cars require much less maintenance because of what they don’t have things like oil filters, or oil, radiators, mufflers, spark plugs and so on. This all saves money. What has been holding back sales of electric cars has been the high cost of the cars because of the high cost of electric car’s batteries. But as production of batteries and electric cars continue to grow the price of both to make will continue to go down. Its all about economies of scale, this is the same reason that mass production of the Ford Model T spawn the early growth of the US auto industry with most families owning cars by the 1920’s.

Even the cost of electricity will continue to go down. The cost of making solar cells and wind turbines continues to go down as economies of mass production of them continues to lower their costs to make. In most places renewable energy is already cheaper than coal or nuclear for making electricity. Renewable energy is already competitive with natural gas for making electricity and is on track to be cheaper than gas in most markets in the near future. Are electric airplanes next? There are already electric planes being developed.

So what about trains? As costs of electric transportation continues to drop, we can expect to see electricity used more on the rails. Overhead catenary electrification is already common for rail service around the world and we can expect more railroads to add catenary. We will see major electrification with High Speed Rail in California starting with electrification of Caltrain which future High Speed Trains will share between San Jose and San Francisco. Still it won’t be economical to try to electrify all railroads with catenary, nor will it be needed. Trains in the future will also have batteries instead of diesel engines and fuel tanks. Simply adding lightweight turbine engines as generators can be used to extend battery range as well as being cleaner and cheaper than diesel.

What batteries can do for trains is allow trains to use catenary on main lines which will have the heaviest traffic and the most need for electrification. With batteries trains could lower their pantograph as they leave catenary territory and continue on battery power. Many rail lines would only need short segments of catenary with battery powered trains. The most logical places for catenary would be at end points, stations and at sidings. Passenger trains could charge their batteries at stations during station stops under catenary. Catenary would only need to be long enough to power a train’s acceleration which is when the most energy in used by trains. Very little power is needed to maintain speed after a train is moving at its normal speed. This would greatly extend the train’s range on battery power. At sidings much the same could be done with trains charging their batteries while waiting at a siding under catenary, and accelerating onto the mainline under catenary and running on battery power most of the rest of the time. For sidings in remote areas not near the electrical grid, solar panels and banks of batteries may be used to electrify catenary sidings.

How soon will all this happen? Except for trains, it is already happening. It will take years to build and then replace the millions of existing internal combustion cars, trucks and buses with electric ones. Public buses are already a thriving market replacing old buses with new electric ones. Even though electric buses still cost more than diesel buses to buy, bus agencies have have discovered that they save money in the long run from lower operating costs with electric buses. No doubt large truck fleet owners like Walmart, UPS, Fed EX and so on are already making plans to electrify. Right now electric autos are now almost the price of a conventional car. In less than 5 years if current tends continue electric cars will cost less than non-electric cars to buy and will cost much less to operate than gasoline powered cars. No wonder so many car makers are working on electric cars.

Trains? This may be 10 years in future to really get going. But it’s a good bet it will start in California. California is in the lead in the United States for reducing pollution including greenhouse gas emissions. This will likely include more calls to electrify the railroads of California. As battery prices continue to drop, there will be more interests to use them on rail lines. I think it quite likely that we will see in 10 years more miles of catenary beyond that called for High Speed Rail and Caltrain. We should see battery powered trains with either gas turbine generators or short segments of catenary. Instead of DMU’s (diesel multiple unit trains) we could be seeing BMU’s with battery multiple unit trains. We might even see SMART and Sprinter DMU equipment now in California in a few years be converted to BMU.  What will be driving this in the end is not idealism, or ideology, but simple economics. Renewable electric power soon will be cheaper to use and to buy than conventional power sources.

And if you don’t believe me, check these out.

Battery Powered Train | Fully Charged

Published on Nov 29, 2017
The future of trains? With many train lines in the U.K. not electrified, we still run diesel powered rolling stock. Noisy and dirty.

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