March 6, 2021

Green Column: 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,” Mr. 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. But now the public and industry are increasingly attuned to sustainability and to what companies are doing, Mr. Witschke said.

“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.”

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?

Some transportation industry analysts are skeptical.

“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.

Photovoltaic panels in the spectacular glass roof of the Hauptbahnhof, the main station in Berlin, produce 160,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity a year — about 2 percent of the station’s needs.

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. Even high-speed trains, which zip across the country at as much as 300 kilometers, or 185 miles, per hour, have carbon emissions of 46 grams per passenger per kilometer, or about 2.6 ounces per passenger per mile, compared with an average of 140 grams for cars and 180 for planes.

“Since Fukushima, Deutsche Bahn has been moving in the right direction,” Mr. Ahmels said. “There’s clearly a new thinking on the board. They’re doing sensible things. 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.

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