Trains that run like, and on, the wind

Deutsche Bahn says it wants to raise the percentage of wind, hydro and solar energy used in powering its trains from 20 percent now to 28 percent in 2014 and to become carbon-free by 2050 — targets that exceed the German government’s already ambitious national goals.

“Consumers in Germany have made it clear they want us all to get away from nuclear energy and to more renewable energy,” said Hans-Jürgen Witschke, chief executive of Deutsche Bahn Energie, which supplies electricity for trains in Germany. “It’s what customers want, and we’re making it happen,”  Witschke said in an interview. “The demand for green electricity keeps rising each year, and that’ll continue.”

Prevailing attitudes in Germany were already decidedly green before the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex in Japan set off by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. After the nuclear crisis in Japan, the Berlin government abruptly reversed course on nuclear power, shutting eight nuclear plants and vowing to close the other nine by 2022.

That caught Deutsche Bahn — and German industry — off guard. The state-owned railroad had relied heavily on nuclear energy. “Environmental protection has become an important issue in the marketplace and especially in the transport sector,” he said.

“Even though more renewables will cost a bit more, that can be contained with an intelligent energy mix and reasonable time frame. We’re confident that cutting CO2 emissions will give us a competitive advantage.”

Genuine concerns
There are still concerns about the reliability of renewables as their share rises toward 100 percent and before more storage capacity is available. What happens when there is no wind or sunshine? “It sounds like a bit of ‘greenwashing,”’ said Stefan Kick, an analyst at Silvia Quandt Research, a Frankfurt brokerage.

“Obviously, costs for renewable energy are going to be higher. Yet if customers are truly willing to pay, it could make sense.” The railroad’s new push for a larger share of renewable energy to operate trains that transport 1.9 billion passengers and 415 million tons of freight each year has won applause from environmental groups.

They have cheered Deutsche Bahn’s partnerships with wind and hydroelectric power suppliers and its exploratory moves into harvesting solar power from the roofs of its 5,700 stations. Previously, environmentalists had accused the company of neglecting to develop renewables on its vast properties because of its heavy reliance on nuclear power.

Peter Ahmels, a renewable energy specialist at the German Environmental Aid Association, said the railroad could have done more with wind and solar on its property holdings. Instead, he said Deutsche Bahn had relied complacently on its image as a low-emission mode of transport. “Since Fukushima, Deutsche Bahn has been moving in the right direction,” Mr. Ahmels said. “Before, they resisted. The argument was that renewables were not their core business.”

By 2014, the railroad wants a third of the electricity for long-distance trains to come from renewable sources. Deutsche Bahn also runs myriad local rail operations in towns and cities. To run its trains, the railroad uses a staggering amount of electricity every year: 12 terawatt-hours.

That is as much as Berlin, with its 3.2 million residents, consumes. The railroad alone uses 2 percent of Germany’s total electricity. But Germany is already a world leader in renewable energy. About 17 percent comes from renewables, up from 6 percent in 2000. Mr. Witschke of Deutsche Bahn Energie said the national railroad would have 35 percent or 40 percent by 2020 and 100 percent by midcentury.

“The demand for our CO2-free products has been above expectations,” Mr. Witschke said. To help meet that target, Deutsche Bahn has been operating two wind parks in Brandenburg, and in July it signed a €1.3 billion, or $1.9 billion, deal with the utility RWE to get 900 million kilowatt-hours a year from 14 hydroelectric plants — enough for 250,000 households.

“It does have quite a symbolic impact when the country’s largest electricity user takes such a big step into regenerative energy,” Mr. Witschke said. “We’re also one of the biggest electricity users anywhere in Europe. It’s not going unnoticed.”

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