Energy-Efficient Railways

USAID is working with the Indian Railways on the network’s transition to net zero energy by 2030.

By Natasa Milas

March 2023

Energy-Efficient Railways

USAID Assistant Administrator Michael Schiffer at the New Delhi Railway Station to learn how India is harnessing renewable energy and energy efficiency to meet its 2030 climate targets. Indian Railways has installed solar panels at more than 900 train stations across India. (Photograph courtesy USAID)

The Indian Railway system is one of the world’s largest railway networks. It is more than 170 years old and its tracks are spread across a massive 115,000 km. A large part of this system is run on fossil fuels. In fact, the railway system accounts for nearly 2 percent of the country’s total energy consumption.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), through its clean energy programs, has been actively supporting the Indian Railways in its efforts to transition to clean energy and achieve carbon neutrality for its existing infrastructure by 2030. The work involves integrating energy-efficient and renewable energy technologies into its facilities like railways stations, offices, residential areas, yards and water supply, and adopting large scale renewable energy for rail operations across the country.


USAID supported the Indian Railways by providing technical assistance per the Indian Railways vision and guidelines for Net Zero Energy Buildings report, through the MAITREE (Market Integration and Transformation for Energy Efficiency) initiative. Under the MAITREE initiative, Environmental Design Solutions, a sustainability advisory firm that focuses on built structures, helped Indian Railways make the transition. The Railways is also investing in renewable energy generation and procurement from the grid. “This is also consistent with India’s commitment to have 50 percent of its energy from non-fossil sources by 2030,” says Tanmay Tathagat of Environmental Design Solutions.

The Railways is reducing the intensity of existing as well as future current drawn to buildings and infrastructure. “The Indian Railways has committed to follow the most stringent energy efficiency building standards, called the SuperECBC standard, for all new stations and buildings,” says Tathagat. “The Railways is also upgrading its existing buildings by aiming for a net zero certification called ‘Shunya,’ promoted by the Bureau of Energy Efficiency,” says Tathagat. This is particularly important to achieve net zero energy goals as the Railways’ building infrastructure uses a significant proportion of power. “Over 10 percent of the Indian Railways energy use goes towards [its] buildings’ infrastructure and other non-traction purposes,” explains Tathaghat. Traction energy is consumed for movement of trains while non-traction energy is used for offices, railway stations, yards, workshops, water supply and air conditioning.

Tathagat says energy efficiency is critical to not only reduce the requirement for additional renewable energy, but also to make the investment in renewable energy cost effective. To achieve this, the Indian Railways has started upgrading lighting, cooling and other appliances in most of its existing buildings to higher energy efficiency, called deep energy retrofits. It is a complex process, and in many ways reducing energy use in new buildings is a simpler task. “New buildings can be designed to have a lower carbon footprint and reduce energy use by use of better design and materials,” explains Tathagat. But, investing in the incremental cost of energy efficient technologies, design optimization and efficient operations has a shorter payback, he adds.

Tathagat is positive that the Indian Railways will be able to achieve its goal of energy efficiency by 2030. This is expected to facilitate a greater efficiency of the system, and a multipronged approach to the challenge of making buildings energy efficient will also contribute to the national goals, over time.

South Asia Regional Energy Partnership (SAREP)

On December 27, 2022, Indian Railways signed the new Energy Efficiency Policy and Action Plan developed under USAID’s regional energy programming, which will support India’s net-zero carbon emissions target. This new policy, to be implemented nationwide, is the first time Indian Railways has put forward a comprehensive strategy to promote energy efficiency and represents an important milestone in USAID’s partnership with Indian Railways. This initiative will have a significant impact on expanding energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies across the country.

The SAREP is the flagship regional energy program of the USAID. This five-year initiative (2021-26) is to improve access to affordable, secure, reliable and sustainable energy in India. It provides extensive support to Indian Railways to expand the use of renewable energy and energy efficiency in its operations. It is based on a four-pronged strategy—adopt carbon neutral or low carbon sources and increase consumption of renewable energy; shift from diesel to electric traction with 100 percent electrification; reduce energy consumption and improve energy efficiency and carbon capture and offset.

As a part of the program, Indian Railways integrated renewable energy in the form of solar panels that have been installed at more than 900 railway stations across the country. USAID Asia Bureau Assistant Administrator Michael Schiffer visited India in January 2023 to promote U.S.-India development partnerships, with a focus on clean energy transition and other shared energy efficiency initiatives. Assistant Administrator Schiffer says, “With energy consumption on the rise, and effects of climate change increasing, USAID is proud to partner with Indian Railways as it leads the way on transitioning to renewable energy sources.”

Natasa Milas is a freelance writer based in New York City.


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