Eskom’s power woes pushed students from a Pretoria school to build a solar-powered train

  • A group of students from a school in Soshanguve, north of Pretoria, have built a train powered by solar energy.
  • The locomotive is intended to ease the troubles of commuters plagued by unreliable electricity supply.
  • The pilot locomotive can travel 60km and has four solar panels attached to its roof.
  • The project cost R500,000 and resulted in a vehicle that accommodates six seated and standing travellers.
  • It is not fast.

Pushed by South Africa’s 15-year-long electricity supply crisis and the burden it poses for train commuters, learners from a Pretoria high school designed a solar-powered train.

A group of 19 students from Soshanguve Technical School of Specialization, in a township 30 kilometres north of Pretoria, built a pilot solar locomotive that promises a travel speed of 30km per hour.

A 10kW motor powers the train, but by their calculations a 3kW motor could do the job, Lethabo Nkadimeng, one of the learners involved in the project, told Business Insider South Africa

The train currently runs on an 18-metre-long test rail track situated at the school’s premises. Outside the school yard, it is estimated that it can travel as far as 60km, Khomotso Moimane, the project mentor and one of the school’s teachers, said.

Four solar panels are attached to the roof, and it is equipped with four lithium batteries.

The locomotive cost R500,000 to build and has two passenger seats, but can accommodate a further four travellers standing. Its driver compartment can host two train operators.

The students commenced working on the concept for the solar locomotive in September 2021 and were spurred on by South Africa’s persisting load shedding and the impact it has on the economy.

“We chose to tackle the issue of load shedding and combined it with transportation, and so we decided to come up with a solar-powered train… we saw that by using solar, we can actually use free sustainable energy,” Nkadimeng said.

Before the project, the learners had scant knowledge about the critical components of locomotives and waded through piles of literature while conducting research. Their research also included a visit to railway operator, Transnet, which exposed them to how trains function, Lethabo said.

“The things that we came across, one of the most important thing, would be the issue of solar panels, by doing research, we managed to find out which panel would be the best,” he said.

“And we also managed to find out how to do calculations, in order to be able to consider the maintenance and to know whether or not what we are doing will be efficient. We have the aerodynamic range, which is the air resistance, which also helped us decide [on] the speed of our train,” he said.

Princess Nkoana, another student part of the group, said the solar locomotive would ease the burden on commuters who rely on rail transport.

“Currently we are having problems with Eskom, most people cannot go to work and others use trains to go to school. They buy a ticket for a week to go to school and to go to work, so this solar locomotive comes as a problem solver because even when the electricity is off they can use the locomotive to take them to point A to point B,” she said.

“The sun is consistent; you’re not going to wake up tomorrow and say the sun is finished,” she said.