Solar Railways: Innovative Solution or Impractical Idea?

10-07-2023 | By Robin Mitchell

I thought we saw it all when Solar Roadways thought that replacing roads with solar panels was a good idea, but a new idea floating around the internet has certainly challenged that; solar railways. What idea is being proposed, why is it another level of stupid, and what is this obsession with solar panels on the floor all about?

At sunset, in Siemianowice lskie, Poland, there is a railway line running through the city.

Solar Panels on Railways – The future of solar panels (yeah, right)

The world is getting warmer, CO2 emissions continue to dominate climate concerns, and fossil fuels are slowly running out. The toxic fumes from modern industrial processes are contributing to worsening health conditions across cities around the world, and the threat of radioactive waste from nuclear power plants has seen many turn away from the technology.

For these reasons, researchers around the world are desperately trying to find alternative energy sources that will provide humanity with a net zero future, and so far, solar and wind have presented themselves as the best solution thus far. Just as wind turbines need to be placed in areas of wind, solar panels need to be placed where there is plenty of light. 

Recently, a new Swiss start-up called Sun-Ways reckons they have the answer to this dilemma[1], solar panels on train tracks. The logic behind the idea is truly brilliant; instead of having panels sat in fields pointed at the sun, they can instead be laid flat on rails, automatically placed by passing trains and providing enough power for millions of homes. 

Furthermore, Sun-Ways have claimed to develop a unique removal technology which allows panels to be easily removed, allowing for much-needed maintenance to be conducted on tracks. Their goal is to place panels along all 5,317km of railway in Switzerland, and the power from these panels would be used to power millions of homes. It is believed that such a system would provide one terawatt-hour of energy per year, representing 2% of Switzerland’s energy consumption.

To ensure that they operate safely, the panels integrate numerous sensors, while the use of anti-reflective glass would reduce glare from train operators. If proven, the system will be expanded across Europe, providing a green future for all.

However, it's important to note that the concept of solar railways is not without its potential benefits. For instance, according to a report by [2], solar railways could potentially generate a significant amount of renewable energy, reducing reliance on fossil fuels and contributing to efforts to combat climate change.


Why is this another level of stupid?

Any engineer worth their salt will recognise that what Sun-Way intends to do is idiotic at best and arguably a potential scam at its worse. So, let’s dive into the reasons why this idea is anything but intelligent. 

That being said, it's crucial to approach such innovative ideas with a critical eye. As highlighted by [3], similar initiatives, such as Solar Roadways, have faced significant challenges and criticisms, including concerns about cost, durability, and feasibility.

Horizontal Panels = Little Energy

The first problem with this proposal is that horizontal panels are very inefficient at gathering energy from the sun, especially in countries where the sun is never directly overhead (i.e., the equator). For example, a tracking solar panel on two axis can be as much as 45% more efficient than a solar panel[4] that is fixed in an optimal position, so the difference between a tracking system and flat panels would be even greater. This reduction in efficiency not only reduces the amount of energy generated but also increases the overall system cost. As such, it makes far more sense to just have those panels fixed to an optimal angle as opposed to laying flat on a track.

Moreover, the use of solar trackers could potentially improve the efficiency of solar panels. According to [5], solar trackers can increase the energy output of solar panels by up to 20%, making them a potentially more effective solution than flat solar panels.

Panels on tracks = Damaged

Railways are far from forgiving environments, and the amount of dirt and debris that can be kicked around is no joke. Even if panels are made from reinforced materials, they will be subjected to brutal vibrations, shock, and debris from passing trains. This will quickly see the top surface dulled and therefore reduce the amount of energy that can be gathered. These panels could be cleaned by passing trains, but anything that goes wrong during this process could damage panels or, worse, the passing train. 

Large-scale maintenance = Logistical Nightmare

Panels laid on over 5,000km of railway will undoubtedly be a logistical nightmare to sort out. Panels that break and require maintenance would require the railway to be temporarily shut down while the crew replace broken panels. Assuming a typical panel size of 2 meters long, 5,000km of panels would contain a total of 2.5 million panels, and a failure rate of 0.5% per year[6] would see 12,500 panels needing replacement. 

Damage Panels = Environmental Danger

There are already major concerns surrounding the environmental dangers of solar panels[7] due to the numerous toxic compounds they incorporate. Thus, having 12,500 panels break each year could introduce substantial quantities of these compounds into the environment. Panels that are installed in a solar far are rarely subjected to extreme forces, are easy to access, and rarely break, making solar farms a far more environmentally friendly solution. 

Safety = Accident Waiting To Happen

With panels placed onto rails, there is an increase in the risk of accidents. While a direct impact with a panel may not have the capacity to damage a train, it doesn’t take much debris on the tracks to cause a derailment. Unlike most railway parts which are extremely dense and heavy, the panels will likely be easy to move by hand (before installation), meaning that any panels which come loose could find their way across the track. 

Snow and Ice = A Stupid Solution

Finally, the most idiotic statement made by Sun-Ways, and by far my favourite, is that if snow and ice form on the panels, they will have integrated heaters to melt the snow and ice. Now, without going into too much detail (see YouTuber Thunderf00 t’s video on Solar Roadways for this), the amount of energy needed to melt ice is so insanely massive that the panel would never be able to generate enough to compensate for heaters. Simply put, the railway would be turned into a giant electric heater that actually becomes a net consumer on the electrical grid. 

What is this obsession with solar panels on the floor?

Sun-Ways is not the only company to have explored the ludicrous idea of solar panels being laid flat on the floor; Solar Roadways popularised this idea more than a decade ago. But despite the massive amount of engineering data proving that such ideas are nothing more than fantasy, it seems that they continue to get funding.

Despite the numerous failures of such projects, they continue to gain traction in the public eye[8], and this could be due to two main factors; the publics’ inability to understand math and the lack of follow-up from the media. When a sensational idea is published, media outlets quickly make numerous posts in the hope of scraping traffic (as this translates to more revenue). These posts are generally glorified, giving the reader false hope during a time when almost every day, readers are told how the world is coming to an end due to climate change.

But when these ideas are proven to be nothing but a sham[9], the media rarely follows up on the story. As such, the last public memory of solar panels on the floor was in a positive light, and this may trickle down to engineers looking to discover the next big thing. Of course, the fact that these start-ups don’t do basic math also indicates that they are far from having any real talent, but then, this is where another concern comes in; scams. 

It is no secret that many publicly funded projects are scams, and the same applies to some start-ups that just want to get investor money and run. By making some flashy 3D animations and promising investors solutions that will change the world, it is very easy to gain access to large sums of cash, especially from government funding programs. Whether Sun-Ways is a scam or not is hard to judge, but considering that this idea will never work at any scale, the project will do nothing but waste investor money.


  1. Sun-Ways
  2. Switzerland Solar Railway
  3. Solar Roadways
  4. Solar Power Revolutionised With Simple Efficiencies
  5. Solar Trackers: Everything You Need to Know
  6. How Long Do Rooftop Residential Solar Panels Last?
  7. How Environmentally Friendly Energy Saving Lamps Are Anything But
  8. Space-Based Solar Power: Game Changer or Just Hype?
  9. The Stupidity of Massless Batteries

By Robin Mitchell

Robin Mitchell is an electronic engineer who has been involved in electronics since the age of 13. After completing a BEng at the University of Warwick, Robin moved into the field of online content creation, developing articles, news pieces, and projects aimed at professionals and makers alike. Currently, Robin runs a small electronics business, MitchElectronics, which produces educational kits and resources.