By Erik Kirschbaum
BERLIN (Reuters) - It won't be easy to run a national railway on renewable energy like wind, hydro and solar power but that is what Germany's Deutsche Bahn aims to do for one simple reason: it's what consumers want.
Deutsche Bahn says it wants to raise the percentage of wind, hydro and solar energy to power its trains from 20 percent now to 28 percent in 2014 and become carbon-free by 2050.
"Consumers in Germany have made it clear they want us all to get away from nuclear energy and to more renewable energy," Hans-Juergen Witschke, chief executive of Deutsche Bahn Energie, said of the railway's attention-grabbing revised targets that exceed the government's already ambitious national aims.
"It's what customers want and we're making it happen," Witschke said in an interview with Reuters. "The demand for green electricity keeps rising each year and that'll continue."
Prevailing attitudes in Germany were already decidedly green before the Japanese Fukushima nuclear accident in March prompted a head-first dive into renewables.
The Berlin government abruptly reversed course on nuclear power, shutting eight nuclear plants and vowing to close the other nine by 2022.
That caught Deutsche Bahn -- and German industry -- off guard. The state-owned railways had relied heavily on nuclear energy. But now the public and industry are increasingly attuned to sustainability and what companies are doing, Witschke said.
"Environmental protection has become an important issue in the market place and especially in the transport sector," he said. "It's a mega trend. Even though more renewables will cost a bit more, that can be contained with an intelligent energy mix and reasonable time frame. We're confident that cutting CO2 (carbon dioxide) emissions will give us a competitive advantage."
There are still concerns about the reliability of renewables as their share rises toward 100 percent and before more storage capacity is available. What happens when there is no wind or sunshine?
Some transport industry analysts are skeptical.
"It sounds like a bit of 'green-washing'," said Stefan Kick, an analyst at Silvia Quandt Research, a Frankfurt brokerage. "Obviously costs for renewable energy are going to be higher. Yet if customers are truly willing to pay, it could make sense."
The railway's new push for a larger share of renewable energy to operate trains that transport 1.9 billion passengers and 415 million tonnes of freight each year has won applause from environmental groups.
They have cheered Deutsche Bahn's partnerships with wind and hydroelectric power suppliers and its exploratory moves into harvesting solar power from the roofs of its 5,700 stations.
Photovoltaic panels in the spectacular glass roof of Berlin's main station produce 160,000 kw/h of electricity a year -- meeting about 2 percent of the Hauptbahnhof station's needs.
Previously, environmentalists had accused the company of neglecting to develop renewables on its vast properties and because of its heavy reliance on nuclear.
Peter Ahmels, a renewable energy specialist at the German Environmental Aid Association (DUH), said the railways could have done more with wind and solar on its property holdings.
Instead, he said Deutsche Bahn had relied complacently on its image as a low-emission mode of transport.
It could do this because even high speed trains have CO2 emissions per passenger per km of 46 grams, compared with an average 140 for cars and 180 for planes.
"Since Fukushima, Deutsche Bahn has been moving in the right direction," Ahmels said. "There's clearly a new thinking on the board. They're doing sensible things. Before they resisted. The argument was that renewables were not their core business."
The railway's high speed trains zip across the country at up to 300 kph (186 mph). By 2014 a third of the electricity for long-distance trains will come from renewable sources.
Deutsche Bahn also operates myriad local rail operations in towns and cities. Some operations, such as local railways in Hamburg and Saarland, already run on 100 percent renewable energy and proudly boast about that in advertising.
To run its trains the railways use a staggering amount of electricity every year: 12 terawatt hours. That is as much as Berlin with its 3.2 million residents consumes.
The railways alone use 2 percent of Germany's total electricity. A single high-speed ICE train traveling from Frankfurt to Berlin uses up 4,800 kw/h, enough for a four-person family for a full year.
Germany is already a world leader in renewable energy. About 17 percent comes from renewables, up from 6 percent in 2000.
The German government aims to raise that share to 35 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050. Witschke said Deutsche Bahn will have 35 or 40 percent by 2020 and 100 percent by mid-century.
"We've got a vision of being carbon free by 2050. That's not just a declaration of intent. It's a concrete business target."
Some passengers and business partners, such as carmaker Audi, already voluntarily pay small surcharges for CO2-free transport packages that guarantee green power is used.
"The demand for our CO2-free products has been above expectations," Witschke said. "The customers really want this. If they keep turning to the CO2-free products at this pace, we'll be over the 40 percent mark in 2020."
To help meet that target, Deutsche Bahn has been operating two wind parks in Brandenburg and in July signed a 1.3 billion euro deal with utility RWE to get 900 million kw/h a year from 14 hydroelectric plants -- enough for 250,000 households.
Because there are still questions about the reliability of renewable energy until the storage capacities can be increased, Witschke said he carefully tracks the wind parks to learn more.
"It's a learning process," he said. "We face the same issue as everyone: what do you do when there's no wind? The experience we've is that too much wind (when turbines are turned off) is more of a problem than not enough."
The hydroelectric deal with RWE runs for 15 years and will supply the railways with about eight percent of its needs.
"It does have quite a symbolic impact when the country's largest electricity user takes such a big step into regenerative energy," Witschke said. "We're also one of the biggest electricity users anywhere in Europe. It's not going unnoticed."
(Editing by Anthony Barker)