Dutch electric trains now run entirely by wind energy

The smaller nations of Europe seem to be in the vanguard of using wind energy. Some time ago, I wrote about the day when Denmark managed to power the entire national grid using just wind energy. It was on a Sunday when energy consumption is lower but it was still a remarkable feat. Then this week had this news item that said that all the electric trains in the Netherlands are now powered by wind energy.

Dutch electricity company Eneco won a tender offered by NS two years ago and the two companies signed a 10-year deal setting January 2018 as the date by which all NS trains should run on wind energy.

“So we in fact reached our goal a year earlier than planned,” said Boon, adding that an increase in the number of wind farms across the country and off the coast of the Netherlands had helped NS achieve its aim.

Eneco and NS said on a joint website that around 600,000 passengers daily are “the first in the world” to travel thanks to wind energy. NS operates about 5,500 train trips a day.

One windmill running for an hour can power a train for 120 miles, the companies said. They hope to reduce the energy used per passenger by a further 35% by 2020 compared with 2005.

When I read that news heading, my first mental image was the ridiculous one of each train having little windmills on top that powered the train and that as the train went faster, the wind speed got more and generated even yet more power, creating a perpetual motion machine. Of course, that is rubbish. Neither do the trains run on a separate grid that is powered by wind. Wind power is generated by wind farms that feed into the common national grid. This article explains the three ways that electricity can be used to run trains.

  1. On-board energy storage systems, such as batteries;
  2. An overhead wire that the train connects to; or
  3. An extra ‘live’ rail that has direct current flowing through it at all times.

You’ve probably noticed at least one of these options on your rail journeys. Overhead wires are best suited to tram and intercity services, whereas the more compact ‘third rail’ option is preferred for underground trains. The role of the third (or conductor) rail is to ensure that the electricity is always directly available, so it’s installed alongside, or in between, the pair of running rails (Keep an eye out for it when you’re next on an underground train).

Since the source of energy is indistinguishable once it enters the grid, what this news means is that the amount of energy that all the trains use is purchased from a company that uses wind sources to generate the power that feeds into the grid and the railway companies are paying prices set by the wind turbine costs.

At this point, total Dutch wind power generation is about 7.4 billion kWh annually. With wind power usage in 2015 equal to 12.5 billion kWh, Dutch demand for wind power amply exceeds supply. The way energy company Eneco frequently solves this is by procuring Guarantees of Origin (GoO). These are certificates belonging to renewably generated electricity, and by buying them up from countries where renewable energy supply exceeds demand, on paper, the GoO buyer’s electricity becomes green and the GoO seller’s electricity can no longer be sold as “sustainable.” So, the GoO system allows for the transfer of the rights to call electricity green from those who actually generate renewable energy to those who don’t but want to classify their power as such. The actual amount of green energy produced is unaffected.

However, for its railway clients, Eneco might have taken a different approach. Eneco explains to RTL Z that the electricity for the project comes from newly built wind farms in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Finland. It is reportedly due to the early completion of these wind farms that the 100% target was met one year ahead of schedule.

Currently, the Netherlands have a total of 2,200 wind turbines that generates enough power for 2.4 million households. The significant feature is that these sources of renewable power are now becoming increasingly cost effective and competitive with fossil fuels.


  1. mnb0 says

    Unfortunately the grid has about the same capacity as forty years ago while traffic has immensely increased, so trains running on time become rarer and rarer.

  2. Jackson says

    passengers daily are “the first in the world” to travel thanks to wind energy

    A fact disputed by several thousand years of boat enthusiasts.

  3. Sunday Afternoon says

    Slightly OT (solar, not wind, but still renewable): We’re finally putting solar on our roof! When you hear that we are in California, you would be correct to ask “what’s taken so f*(&(#g long???” By way of explanation, there are some nice plots showing how costs have fallen in recent years here: https://understandsolar.com/cost-of-solar/

    It includes this comment:

    More solar had been installed in the U.S. in the last 18 months than in the 30 years prior.

    That’s amazing growth of solar -- thanks Obama!

    Our system will cover over 90% of our annual electricity usage and with the federal tax credit we’ll recover our up-front costs in under 10 years which compares well with the useful life of the system of ~25 years.

  4. Mano Singham says

    Sunday Afternoon,

    Good for you! It turns out that even Cleveland has an appreciable about of sunlight that can make solar strongly competitive with other sources fairly soon.

    When I was in Sri Lanka last year, some friends told me that they had put in solar panels on the roof. The cost of electricity is so high there that they were expecting to recoup the costs in just a couple of years.

  5. Sunday Afternoon says

    @Mano: I have family in the west of Scotland, not a place noted for lots of sun. The aspect of their roof makes it ideal for solar nonetheless -- the incentive package they are on means that they have paid nothing for utilities (electricity, gas, phone & internet) for a number of years! I feel late to the party…

  6. says

    I heard a claim the other day that renewables (wind and solar) are almost cheaper than coal, right now, and require less energy to produce than coal does to extract. That’s great and interesting news (thanks: capitalism and physicists!) We’re still in for some planetary problems while the great re-balancing takes place.

  7. Trickster Goddess says

    The Dutch are far from “first in the world” to do this. Calgary Transit began running their Light Rail Transit trains on wind energy about 15 years ago. They even had an advertising slogan: “Ride With the Wind”.

  8. Kilian Hekhuis says

    @7: They are the first in the world to have the entire public railway system of a single country to run on wind energy, not the light rail of a single city or state.

  9. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    This is such obvious hogwash, and yet everyone here falls for it hook, line, and sinker. The claim “runs on wind” makes sense only if you squint the right way to hide incredibly important details. In order to honestly make the claim “it runs on wind”, then the electricity demand by the trains would have to be met by the electricity generation by the wind turbines, on a second by second basis. What happens in reality is that for large portions of the year, the wind generation is not enough, and it’s actually powered by some other source, whether it’s hydro, coal, nat gas nuclear, etc. Doing an analysis “total energy in the year vs total energy in the year” makes the common mistake of assuming perfectly efficient and perfectly free energy storage, but there is no such thing. The problem of energy storage, specifically the costs of energy storage (both money costs, labor costs, and energy costs ala EROEI), is one of the primary problems regarding wind and solar today, which generally requires substantial backup and usage of fossil fuels, nuclear, and/or hydro (and hydro is already more or less at geographic, and cannot be scaled further).

  10. Kilian Hekhuis says

    @9: That is exactly what Mano already explained above, did you bother to read the article?

  11. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    To Kilian Hekhuis
    Are we reading the same thing? I just read the OP again, and skimmed all of the links again. I see nothing that changes my mind. I think you need to read them again.

    In particular, please read the quote in the OP here, “Guarantees of Origin”. That is precisely the kind of bogus accounting games that look at energy totals instead of the proper method of looking at hour-by-hour or minute-by-minute generation numbers and usage numbers.

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