Installing solar panels alongside railway tracks could potentially save Network Rail £30m and 895,000 tonnes of carbon per annum, according to WSP.
Its calculations show that if solar panels were installed on 50% of the trackside land in the UK, it could generate 2.44GW of electricity – around 40% of the electricity Network Rail currently uses to power trains.
It could also significantly increase solar energy production in the UK, which curently has around 5GW of installed PV solar.
Although it was unlikely Network Rail could fund the installation, estimated to cost £2.9bn, WSP said it would be an attractive investment for a third party.
WSP renewable energy expert Barny Evans said: “A scheme like this could generate revenue of £235m in its first year, a return on investment of over 8%.
“It benefits from having two guaranteed revenue streams – first through the FiT for renewable electricity, but also by selling the electricity back to Network Rail at a reduced rate.
“It’s a win-win situation; the investors get a return and Network Rail could save millions on their electricity bill and reduce their carbon footprint.”
In the report Creating Value in our Rail Network, WSP also highlighted the under-use of ‘tier two’ stations and suggested there was the potential to create additional revenue streams by maximising the existing space and making them more energy efficient.
An example would be improving and/or providing retail and entertainment facilities to make the station a community hub, in the same way many major stations are now destinations in their own right rather than simply transport interchanges.
WSP UK head of rail Julie Carrier said: “Our rail network is under enormous pressure because of decreasing public investment and steadily increasing demand, and so delivering value is becoming crucial.
“It’s a challenge that requires creativity – trackside solar panels and improving tier two stations are just the beginning. Network Rail is a major land owner, with around 122 hectares in England alone, so there are huge opportunities by making their land work harder for them.”