It will not be easy to run a national railway on renewable energy like wind, hydro and solar power, but that is what Germany’s Deutsche Bahn aims to do for one simple reason: It is what consumers want.
Deutsche Bahn says it wants to raise the percentage of wind, hydro and solar energy to power its trains from 20 percent now to 28 percent in 2014 and become carbon-free by 2050.
“Consumers in Germany have made it clear they want us all to get away from nuclear energy and to more renewable energy,” Deutsche Bahn Energie chief executive Hans-Juergen Witschke said of the railway’s attention-grabbing revised targets that exceed the government’s already ambitious national aims.
“It’s what customers want and we’re making it happen,” Witschke said in an interview.
Prevailing attitudes in Germany were already decidedly green before the nuclear accident Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in March prompted a head-first dive into renewables.
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 railways had relied heavily on nuclear energy. However, now the public and industry are increasingly attuned to sustainability and what companies are doing, Witschke said.
Some transport industry analysts are skeptical.
“It sounds like a bit of ‘green-washing,’” 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 railway’s new push for a larger share of renewable energy to operate trains that transport 1.9 billion passengers and 415 million tonnes 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 firm of neglecting to develop renewables on its vast properties and because of its heavy reliance on nuclear power.
Peter Ahmels, a renewable energy specialist at the German Environmental Aid Association (DUH), said the railways 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.
It could do this because even high speed trains have carbon dioxide emissions per passenger per kilometer of 46g, compared with an average 140g for cars and 180g for planes.
“Since Fukushima, Deutsche Bahn has been moving in the right direction,” 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.”
Deutsche Bahn also operates myriad local rail operations in towns and cities. Some operations, such as local railways in Hamburg and Saarland, already run on 100 percent renewable energy and proudly boast about that in advertising.
To run its trains the railways use a staggering amount of electricity every year: 12 terawatt hours. That is as much as Berlin with its 3.2 million residents consumes.
The railways alone use 2 percent of Germany’s total electricity. A single high-speed ICE train traveling from Frankfurt to Berlin uses 4,800kwh, enough for a four-person family for a full year.