On track for sustainability

If you’ve ever visited Switzerland, then you’ll know that space is not its strongest selling point. The mountains that sweep across 62% of its land are, though. But how can a country so small continue its drive towards sustainability and preserve its natural beauty? It starts with a train track.

Swiss start-up Sun-Ways has rolled out the idea of installing solar panels in the unused space between train tracks, potentially offering a solution to how to transition to renewable sources without losing sight of – literally – what it means to be Swiss. Dubbed a “solar carpet”, could Switzerland be leading the way to an emission-free Europe?

Technically this idea is not a new one, with similar installations currently being tested in Italy and England. However, what makes Sun-Ways particularly innovative is their pairing of this already-existing concept with some good old-fashioned Swiss efficiency – a reminder that the Swiss are number 1 in the global innovation index for the 13th year in a row for a good reason.

While the one-metre-wide panels will be installed on the rails, they also come equipped with a removable system – the first of its kind – which will facilitate maintenance work. This anticipation of possible problems on this sustainability journey is no coincidence. Switzerland boasts no oil and gas resources, making renewable energy a logical solution. So, while Switzerland may be small, big ideas are very much its thing.

This is not the only way Switzerland is working to harness solar energy via photovoltaic panels, but it is another example of the Swiss making the most of what they’ve got. These panels could potentially be installed on the entire Swiss rail network – a total of 5,317km. That translates to over 5 million m2 available for solar panels, without taking away from existing farmland or cutting down a single tree. For a country that has the rights of plants written into its constitution, that’s about as Swiss a solution as it comes. 

It’s important to note, that for now, this is all purely theoretical. The pilot project will test the viability of these solar-panelled gaps. The aim is to start small: any energy created would be used to supply households initially. Naturally, this could change should it prove a success, and at full potential could account for nearly 2% of Switzerland’s energy needs.

As for whether it doesn’t pan out, the Swiss have demonstrated repeatedly that there’s no problem too big – and no mountain too high for them to climb when it comes to perfecting the generation of renewable energy. As long as it doesn’t encroach on the space Switzerland has, the sky’s the limit.