Freight train electrification may exist in North America – the question is where
FreightWaves recently spoke with Daniel Simounet, vice president of transportation for Hitachi ABB Power Grids, to find out if the freight rail system in North America can be electrified.
Simounet is responsible for working with North American customers who may need power grid devices, such as transformers and switching devices, as well as tools that can connect businesses to the power grid.
While much of the activity Simounet observed regarding rail electrification has been on the passenger rail side, such as the electrification of commuter lines in Toronto, Simounet also believes that countries should consider the role that freight rail electrification can play a role in the supply chain. For its part, Hitachi ABB Power Grid also supports the electrification of other land transportations, such as buses and trucks, as well as the electrification in ports and airports.
This question-and-answer interview has been edited for clarity and length.
FREIGHTWAVES: What needs to be done to advance the debate on the electrification of rail freight in North America?
SIMOUNET: “This task is not confined to a single company or a single industry. To successfully push for electrification, there must be three partners in the equation. First of all, there are the freight lines – the operators. They are the ones who provide private investment.
“However, I don’t think you will see a big return on your investment because the investment costs for the electrification of the infrastructure are significant. And if you do the math, it doesn’t really make sense. There are, I’m pretty sure, a few exceptions for specific tracks that are shorter and have good electrification potential.
“Since the investment costs are high, I think the second partner would be the government. I think there should be an incentive for electrification. There should be a political target that could try to push the market towards a certain percentage of electrification. That would help a lot – to say that, maybe, private companies should be 10% of electrification by a certain date. I think that would help a lot.
“The third partner would be the electric utilities. … There could be interesting discussions between the electric utilities and the freight rail companies, which own certain corridors, interesting discussions between public and private entities – perhaps, for example, the sharing of certain corridors where electric utilities could use electricity transmission. It would take a collaboration here, because at the end of the day the world is going electric. And the network is decarbonizing, so that’s another way of causing decarbonization.
“I think these three things are important. And then you have the fourth element, which is us, the maker of the technology. We have great technology that we can offer to solve this problem. “
FREIGHTWAVES: Are there modes of transportation or stakeholders who are more prepared and ready for electrification? And is there a significant difference in the electrification of trucks or port operations compared to railways?
SIMOUNET: ” I do not really know. But I can tell you that my feeling is that the electrification of ports must be the first target. From the ports to the warehouse it is a short distance where the traffic is known and there is a lot of frequency. … The application from ports to warehouse would be similar to the type of application you would see in the electric truck industry. This is because there is the possibility of reloading at some point.
“Electrifying a train is no longer just a matter of putting a catenary wire at the top of the line and then running an electric train. Today, thanks to the improvement of batteries, we see applications where vehicles can be recharged: buses, large class 8 trucks. We see companies taking an interest in battery trains. So, we can see a mixture of solutions, where a short line can even run on battery trains and they can recharge on part of the line or at the end of the line. … These are the types of solutions that exist today and that have been piloted for different applications.
“At Hitachi, we have some very interesting technology on the side of the road that acts as energy storage. We have converter technology – flash charging technology, we call it – that could be applied to this type of system and where you could recharge very quickly. You could be a train at the end of the line or you could be part of the line using what we call moving recharge. And then we can operate on certain tracks without overhead lines, without significant investment in this kind of thing. So there are technologies.
“Of course, there is a limit to the technology. You have to do an assessment for that, and that’s something we can do as well. We have simulation tools to help private companies simulate these types of routes and see if that might work. We could run it through a freight line. It’s the same challenge.
FREIGHTWAVES: Has the technology you described been applied in Europe, where some rail freight lines have been using electricity for some time?
SIMOUNET: “We applied several different technologies. The big problem is that we are not on the same wavelength as Europe. In Europe, electrification is done naturally by wires. They already have a nice network of threads. So what we are deploying there is the technology to improve their existing network. However, in the UK they run through the electrification of short lines, which currently run on diesel.
“If 40% of freight trains in Europe use diesel-electric systems, they start to wonder how they start to electrify this 40%? And that’s probably the same status as what we’re trying to do or could explore in North America. So when it comes to using battery-focused technology and energy storage, I think that’s really new to everyone here.
“The reason why this is new is that 10 years ago, the battery had not evolved towards this type of capacity and this type of autonomy. Now, we can even imagine that boats – ferries – use this type of application with batteries. So there is a whole new market opening for us.
FREIGHTWAVES: The freight rail industry focused on producing battery-powered electric locomotives, followed by hydrogen ones. What are the deadlines for these offers?
SIMOUNET: “We want everyone to focus on the areas where we can apply the technology that already exists today. And my opinion is that there are tracks, there are lines, where you can immediately jump to battery electric operation. And the technology is there because you can see it applied to transit.
“You will always say, ‘Well my industry is different. It’s bigger. It’s more complex. But at the end of the day I’m pretty sure there is an app – and maybe it’s a small part of the app – but there is an app where we can start doing electrification at the using batteries.
“I also think that today we can start to look at hydrogen through pilot programs. This is what we are seeing now. In my opinion – and this is only my opinion – hydrogen will be an interesting game for the longest time. [distance] range because the density of electricity is interesting here compared to today’s battery. But hydrogen is still linked to battery technology. I don’t think you have pure hydrogen technology. The train will still have a battery on board, as well as hydrogen fuel cells or something like that.
“My opinion is that it is a question of storage here. And either it’s hydrogen longer [distances] but it is still by an electrical application and the batteries would still be involved. My feeling is that one day we can go from a trucker line – a shorter app – and we can grow and develop from that. But if we don’t put in place a real will or real incentives and real policies, I don’t think we will make the effort.
“It’s a mix of the two. Ultimately, the infrastructure can accept both battery technology that already exists and new technology being developed in pilot programs. You probably can’t use electrification between big cities that have some distance between them, but you can use battery-powered trains from a port or airport facility to an industrial area. That’s the vision of what we believe here – that the industry needs a new boost here to start considering moving to electrification. … It means collaboration. It also means breaking down the silo where you have the electric utility, private, and government working together to make it happen. ”
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