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I'm not sure about this, but I think there might be some serious electrical engineering problems if you try to run the trains by the electricity from trackside windmills. First off, a heavy freight train frequently has four or more locomotives, each capable of several thousand horsepower at full throttle. That works out to about 10 MW of power per train, which is at the upper limit of one of today's windmills--when the wind is blowing hard.

Of course the wind isn't going to be blowing full speed all the time, and the locomotives aren't going to be close to a windmill all the time, and the locomotives aren't going to be running at full throttle all the time--they might be doing regenerative braking. So with a setup consisting of multiple windmills, multiple trains, uphill and downhill sections of the line, etc., the flow of the electricity in the system gets very complicated.

These two locomotives can provide approximately 7 MW of continuous power, roughly what you get under perfect conditions with three or four large onshore windmills.

I'm not sure that today's network modeling and real-time control tools are sophisticated enough to do the required management of this sort of power grid configuration. A single grid of this sort would be comparable in complexity to that of the entire country, and today's electrical distribution systems are very fragile because of this problem.

Graphical models of power grids show sharp boundaries between areas in which a system arrives at a stable equilibrium and those in which it becomes unstable or runs away. In the computer representation shown here, which was done by Cornell University's James Thorp, the interactions of two generators are mapped, each point representing the angle by which each generator is out of phase compared with a reference generator. Light blue areas represent grid stability, while the dark red, light red, and purple areas show the grid to be unstable or vulnerable to collapse. Small changes in the state of either generator can produce large and unpredictable changes in the grid's stability.


At least in the American West, there is enough open space in good wind areas that the use of railroad right of ways isn't really needed. Also, when trains replace cars, there will need to be more train tracks--LOTS more! I can't wait!

by asdf on Tue Dec 11th, 2007 at 12:09:01 AM EST

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