How to Build a Solar-Powered Subway

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How to Build a Solar-Powered Subway

Chile leads the way.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

c559da2ba967eb820766939a658022c8.1 Photo from Metro de Santiago

What if local and national governments came together with private sector partners to invest in cutting-edge technology for the country’s busiest subway system?

Such an idea is hard to imagine given the current reality of transit planning in Toronto but that is exactly what is happening in Santiago, Chile.

The Chilean capital’s subway, or Metro de Santiago, consists of five lines and 108 stations along 103 kilometres of track. Metro de Santiago is the busiest subway system in South America, with more than 2.5 million passenger trips each day and serving a metropolitan area with a population of 7.2 million.

For comparison, the TTC has an average daily ridership of more than 1.8 million trips, 69 subway stations, and over 68 kilometres of track. And of course, for the moment, we have only four lines.

As well as boasting a larger network than Toronto, Santiago’s subway will soon be the first in the world to be powered primarily by renewable energy. Chilean President Michelle Bachelet recently announced that 60 per cent of the electricity needed to drive the trains and light the stations will come from renewable sources by 2018.

The plan is for 42 per cent of the subway’s energy needs to be met by solar power, with an additional 18 per cent from wind. This commitment to solar and wind energy represents an investment of $500 million USD and is expected to reduce carbon emissions by 130,000 tons a year.

In Santiago, taking action on environmental targets does not come at the expense of the daily commute. Instead, the investment in renewable energy caps off an expansion of the subway system that will see 12 new stations come into service by the end of 2017, with another 32 kilometres of routes in the works for 2020.

Mass transit is a crucial component of reducing the number of cars on the road, and by extension tackling a host of other issues, from congestion to air quality. Public transportation offers more social and environmental benefits than personal vehicles but Santiago proves that even subways can be made cleaner.

10030065166_f86b3d58ac_z Photo by Vianney (Sam) Carriere from the Torontoist Flickr pool

The environmental impact of TTC vehicles has also been studied by the City of Toronto. The resulting Green Fleet Plan (PDF) lays out a strategy to improve the energy efficiency of buses and discusses measures such as emission control technology and fuel selection.

However, the report stops short of examining the energy sources that power the subway. Instead, the document simply states: “TTC’s fleet of rail vehicles have no local emissions, since they are powered by electricity. Estimates of the emissions from the generating stations used to power the rail system are not included in this report.” Of course, a more detailed analysis would require collaboration with provincial power authorities, and perhaps some federal funding.

In contrast, the government of Chile, in cooperation with other levels of government in Santiago and elsewhere, has taken a big picture approach to understanding and reducing the environmental impacts of public transportation.

The solar power for Santiago’s subway will be generated more than 400 kilometres away in the remote (but incredibly sunny) Atacama Desert. This approach represents the next step in connecting the dots between city life and natural resource extraction, which typically happens far from urban centres.

Canada may not be able to compete with Chile for the number of sunny days, but the innovations underway in Santiago suggest that it’s worth questioning what fuels our vehicles, even the ones that we don’t fill up at the pump.

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