It sounds like science fiction: an entire train system that runs on solar energy. Engineers have tested some models in Europe, but the U.S. has only one such system, operated by the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum, in the small town of Washington, Pennsylvania.
“The panels have been working great,” says Scott Becker, executive director of the museum. “They’re very reliable.”
The museum went solar in September 2009, despite some early skepticism. Most people picture solar panels in the deserts of Nevada, but as Becker points out, the 200-watt panels absorb light even on cold and overcast days. While the museum is still connected to a regular grid, the complex’s 198 solar panels have saved $5,000 in electric bills per year. As with most solar systems, any surplus power is funneled back into the local grid, which earns the museum a credit.
The energy plan has been so effective that the trolley museum recently accrued 18 new panels. For this 36-kilowatt line, the expansion will mean more low-cost energy than ever.
Meanwhile, the museum has enjoyed record-breaking success. In 2011, 27,825 people visited the grounds, a 19% increase from the year before. Many guests are only interested in riding trolley cars, but green technology draws visitors as well. One new exhibit is dedicated entirely to the museum’s solar switch. For a rural nonprofit with a half-million dollar budget, the energy savings and new attractions are a point of pride.
“Last year was our best year ever,” says Becker, who says that it’s possible for the lightest trolley to run solely on solar power. “People love it.”