California’s $100 Billion Electric Bullet Train Will Be Fully Solar Powered
Elon Musk unveiled his futuristic hyperloop concept in 2013 by taking swipes at California’s high-speed rail project, deriding it as "a bullet train that is both one of the most expensive per mile and one of the slowest in the world." A decade later, his fanciful tube train remains science fiction while construction of the Golden State's cash-strapped railway continues, with at least one feature the mercurial billionaire should like: it's going to be solar-powered.
The California High-Speed Rail Authority is preparing to begin discussions with potential suppliers of a $200 million utility-scale system it will own and operate. It will include 552 acres of solar panels generating 44 megawatts of electricity — enough for a city of 33,000 people — and batteries to store 62 megawatt hours of power. The system must be robust enough to provide powerful electrical bursts to propel trains at up to 220 miles per through the 171-mile Central Valley segment of the railway, withstand intense heat and keep passengers moving along — even if there's a blackout at local utilities.
Work could begin by 2026 to ensure it's ready to power trains by 2030, the target opening date for the railway's initial segment, Margaret Cederoth, the authority's director of planning and sustainability, told Forbes. (The timing of when connections to San Francisco and L.A. aren't fixed owing to funding challenges.)
"California is a fantastic place to do renewable energy. It's the best solar installation in the United States," she said. "We already have in our right-of-way portfolio some very well-configured parcels that allow us to do renewable energy generation at the scale necessary to supply the amount of electricity we need to entirely offset our load."
The country's most ambitious and expensive infrastructure project, with an estimated cost of more than $100 billion to ultimately connect Los Angeles and San Francisco in a 422-mile system, was initially conceived as an environmentally friendly alternative to expanding highways or airport capacity, both major sources of carbon emissions. Construction of the initial segment is slowly advancing, though the authority is seeking $2.8 billion in additional funds from the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law to help complete it.
The source of the extra $70 billion or so to complete the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles segments hasn’t been worked out yet. The renewable power system cost is already baked into the authority’s budget for the Central Valley segment.
Brightline West, the proposed high-speed railway connecting Las Vegas to suburban L.A. by private equity billionaire Wes Edens, also intends to rely on carbon-free electricity. Unlike California’s plan, it will purchase power from operators of large desert solar fields.
"We basically have purchase agreements on RECs (renewable energy certificates) to buy renewable power. If you do that drive, because you can't take a train right now, between Vegas and LA, there's nothing with big solar farms out there", Edens told Forbes. "It'll be 100% electrified. It will use renewable power. It will literally be, not an embellishment, the greenest train in the world."
Given that no major high-speed railway is fully powered by renewables currently, that may be true if the $12 billion Brightline West project opens on schedule by 2028. But the California system could potentially overtake it within a couple of years by using its own resources.
"No one has done it, but everybody's starting to think about" relying solely on renewables, said Ryan Scott, director of high-speed systems for Network Rail Consulting, a U.K. firm that’s helping California plan its power system.
"The Germans have just started doing some trials and there have been some in England. We've been involved with all of them on a smaller scale," he said. "Partly, that’s because the amount of renewables in California is far in excess of those other areas. Also, in Europe the deregulation of the power market allows you to shop around for cheap electricity. So there's not the same driver."
He expects that a major industrial conglomerate like Siemens or Alstom might eventually supply the energy system. Both companies also hope to build high-speed trains for both California and Brightline West.
The California railway is being constructed on land the state purchased in its main agricultural heartland, on viaducts built over fields and former commercial properties between Merced and Bakersfield. It will run through areas that would require significant, very costly upgrades to the existing power grid to be able to handle the power requirements of a bullet train.
One of our high-speed trains is going to be pulling somewhere in the region of 9 to 10 megawatts. That's a small town," Scott said. "So you sort of go, "Which do you want to do? Do you want to pay to upgrade the utility's network to make it robust or do you want to do your own solution?" There was that trade-off."
Building the power system is a high upfront cost, but one that should yield big savings in the years ahead, according to the state authority. It estimates electricity costs can be cut by as much as 75% annually, saving about $14 million a year. It will connect to the grid as a "behind the meter" system, which means it will draw power from the grid at times but also send surplus energy back.
"At times of peak grid stress, we'll be able to use some of the electricity from the batteries to feed back to the grid — kind of serving like a power plant in a way," Cederoth said.
Brightline West, which has applied for $3.75 billion in federal grant funds, intends to run its trains mainly on tracks in the median of U.S. I-15 and won’t have the same amount of surplus land to build its own solar fields. Nevertheless, founder Edens will heavily promote the project’s attributes as an ESG, or Environmental, Social and Governance, investment as he works to raise an additional $8 billion or $9 billion to fund its construction.
I'm so confident that this will really check the boxes with people that are looking to do well by doing good on the ESG front, or just general corporate citizenship, but also making good investments,” he said. “I think this is the nexus of those two lines."
But while California is building an entirely new clean power system to fuel its bullet train, the state hasn’t yet looked for ways to monetize it through carbon credits. That appears to be what Edens, with a background in creative financing for big projects, aims to do with Brightlight West. It’s also something Musk has excelled at. Tesla is the leader in selling California's "zero-emission vehicle" and other regulatory credits its electric cars earn to other automakers, hauling in $7.7 billion in essentially free money since 2008.
"That’s a really interesting concept to keep exploring. We've looked at it first and foremost as a cost reduction strategy or mitigation strategy," Cederoth said. HSR Authority CEO "Brian Kelly wants us to explore every available opportunity for the system to be either of service to California as a policy instrument or a renewable energy instrument, but also making sure that it’s as cost-effective as possible."