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14th June 2024

Dinesh Dhamija: Sunlight by Train

Dinesh Dhamija

In 2023 Bill Gates mulled the future of renewable energy. One of the problems, he concluded, was transmitting energy from the windswept plains of Iowa, or the sunny deserts of Arizona. “You can’t exactly ship sunlight in a railcar,” he wrote.

Electrical engineer Christopher Smith had other ideas. Inspired by train wagons full of coal traversing the Alaskan wilderness, he devised a novel business. SunTrain will transport large batteries full of solar-generated electricity on flatbed wagons, moving them from energy rich locations (windy, sunny, or with hydroelectric generation) to energy poor neighbourhoods.

Smith is now raising finance and signing deals with utility companies, to bring his vision to life. He aims to run trains with 120 wagons, delivering electricity to power hundreds of thousands of homes. A gap in the market has emerged thanks to the glacial pace of planning consent for high voltage transmission lines. One major line in New Mexico took 17 years before it could begin construction last year. Many such lines are in development, but meanwhile, SunTrain could make use of the existing rail infrastructure, to deliver results far sooner. It would also save many hundreds of rail industry jobs.

Just as pharmaceutical companies, tackling a major health challenge such as HIV, must experiment with multiple strategies before they find a hybrid solution, coming to grips with the climate crisis will take concerted effort along hundreds of different avenues.

Repurposing railways is just one of the innovations that are now underway, as the world drives down its carbon emissions. A new fleet of ships, chartered by Airbus to transport aircraft parts across the Atlantic from France to Mobile, Alabama, will have a set of sails to complement its engines.

Deploying an electric-powered suction system which boosts the power of the sails, Airbus will save up to 1,800 tons of CO2 per year compared with the existing sail-less ship. Similarly, agricultural trader Cargill chartered a Mitsubishi-owned ship in 2023 retrofitted with 37.5-metre-high sails to reduce its reliance upon fuel.

Some will point out that using sails for getting around has been tried before. But when you see the space-age designs for the America’s Cup yachts, with their wings, hydrofoils and aerofoils, you realise that we have come a long way from the Mayflower and the Cutty Sark. For some, a massive breakthrough in nuclear fusion will be the solution to our energy and climate crisis. But this remains many years, if not decades away, according to the latest estimates.

Shuttling batteries around by train may seem old fashioned, but it’s achievable and cheap.


Dinesh Dhamija founded, built and sold online travel agency, before serving as a Member of the European Parliament. Since then, he has created the largest solar PV and hydrogen businesses in Romania. Dinesh’s latest book is The Indian Century – buy it from Amazon at


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