Berkeley Lab study shows environmental and economic benefits of battery-electric trains

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Hsi-Min Chan/Staff
A study from Berkeley Lab researchers shows battery-electric trains are cost-competitive with diesel-electric trains and better for the environment.

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Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, or Berkeley Lab, scientists collaborated on a study showing battery-electric trains are more cost-competitive and environmentally friendly than diesel-electric trains.

The study, published in the scientific journal Nature Energy on Nov. 11, examined how zero-emission, battery-electric propulsion can be applied to freight rail in the United States based on current and forecasted energy storage, battery energy technologies and access to renewable energy, according to co-author and Berkeley Lab staff scientist Amol Phadke.

“This could be a huge win for the planet and for the many communities of color through which freight trains now move with diesel engines,” said campus professor of city and regional planning and urban design Elizabeth Deakin in an email.

Natalie Popovich, co-author of the study and research scientist at the Berkeley Lab, said switching to battery-electric propulsion would eliminate particulate emissions from freight trains in surrounding communities, bettering air quality and decreasing noise.

Phadke added battery-electric propulsion would also help avoid many deaths and health impacts and save the freight rail sector $94 billion over 20 years from reduced air pollution and carbon dioxide emissions.

“We were curious to see whether trains could accommodate lower-cost battery chemistries without requiring brand new locomotives,” Phadke said in an email.

While battery energy densities tripled, battery pack prices declined 87% between 2010 and 2020, said the report. Additionally, it states, electricity from renewable sources costs about half as much as electricity from fossil fuels.

The report shows lithium ferrous phosphate, or LFP, batteries are today’s most economical battery technology. Using LFP batteries, one boxcar could accommodate a battery with a 241 km range on a single charge — the average distance traveled between Class I freight trains stops nationwide — while consuming half the energy of a diesel train.

U.S. Class I freight trains are defined as railroads that earn more than $505 million in revenue per year, according to the report.

Phadke added the dramatic decline in battery prices created a new possibility for transitioning freight trains from diesel to battery-electric. 30 diesel-operated freight trains passed through Berkeley each day in 2019, a number expected to grow to up to 60 per day by 2030, according to Popovich.

The diesel locomotives emit 35 million tons of carbon dioxide annually, according to the report.

However, Deakin adds there are factors scientists need to watch out for as they transition the trains to battery-electric operation. For example, a battery range of 241 km is not a solution for long-distance train rides and extreme climates can reduce battery performance.

Popovich said if the United States has to switch to battery-electric propulsion, it needs to build “bi-directional charging infrastructure” in multiple locations across the country.

Despite these issues, the researchers said the move to battery-electric powered trains is achievable.

“Battery-electric propulsion is a technologically feasible option for freight rail in the immediate term,” Popovich noted in an email. “If deployed at scale, it is also cost-competitive with diesel.”

Contact Winnie Lau at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @winniewy_lau.