The world’s first fully solar powered airport
Under pressure from skyrocketing electricity prices, an airport in India’s southern state of Kerala came up with the idea of generating its own electricity. Read More
Under pressure from skyrocketing electricity prices, an airport in India’s southern state of Kerala came up with the idea of generating its own electricity.
The estimated number of scheduled passengers handled by the global airline industry has more than doubled since 2004. This great appetite for flying is accelerating climate change: flying could be responsible for around five per cent of global warming. This effect is partly also due to the growing number of resource- and energy-intensive airports being built worldwide, as running airport and aviation operations requires enormous amounts of electricity.
As one of the most polluted countries in the world – it is estimated to be the third biggest CO2-emitting country worldwide – India is taking responsibility. In the southwestern Indian state of Kerala, Cochin International Airport Limited (CIAL) was the first airport to become fully solar-powered back in 2015. It has become a role model, drawing the attention of academia and environmental organizations from around the world.
Greening the beast
The project was initiated in 2013, when the State Electricity Board (KSEB) dramatically increased energy tariffs. As a result, the founder and managing director of Cochin International Airport, V.J. Kurian, decided to explore solar power by setting up solar plants on the airport premises. After all, he reasoned, the airport’s property was a large and partly undeveloped area, perfectly suitable for collecting considerable amounts of sunlight.
The solar project started off with a 100-kilowatt-capacity pilot plant on the rooftop of the arrival terminal, followed by other plants on the rooftops and on the ground in the aircraft maintenance hangar. Having successfully tested these mini plants, CIAL ventured into farming solar energy on a larger scale: a 12-megawatt solar plant was set up in an area of about 45 acres near the International Cargo complex. By 2019, the solar capacity of CIAL had reached 52 megawatts with a power potential of 76 million kilowatt-hours (kWh) per annum, according to Jose Thomas P., general manager at Cochin International Airport Limited. This, he says, translates into a cost reduction of approximately $5.4 million per year as well as lowering carbon emissions by more than 900,000 metric tons over the next 25 years. This is “the equivalent of planting 9 million trees.”
Since 2015, the airport has gotten enough sunshine to fully sustain its operations throughout the whole year, including the rainy season. The excess power the airport produces during the daytime is exported to the State Electricity Board and imported during the night. The ground underneath the solar panels is also being put to good use: instead of spending money to mow the weeds underneath the panels, the airport authorities decided to use the land for organic vegetable farming with the benefit of additional income.
Keeping operations profitable
Apart from sustainability, the solar project serves one major goal: keeping operations profitable. Cochin airport is run by a public-private partnership that includes a total of 18,000 investors from more than 30 countries, as Managing Director Jose Thomas P. explains: “We are sure that there will be drastic fund crunches in the aviation sector due to the changes in tariff rate policies of AERA, the Airport Economic Regulatory Authority. Merely depending on the sole income from the aero sector is due for an overhaul.”
The airport has therefore initiated a large-scale diversification process into non-aviation and non-airport sectors. Not only has the land under the solar panels been successfully used for vegetable farming; other areas have been allocated for a golf course and a trade fair and exhibition centre. Furthermore, management is directly operating the duty-free business at the airport.
CIAL piqued the interest of several international environmental organizations culminating with the UN ‘Champion of Earth’ award. Its sustainable model became a case study for universities and business schools around the world including Harvard. According to Jose Thomas P., other countries such as Ghana and Liberia are thinking about replicating CIAL’s model in their airports. The message is simple: if an airport in one of the most polluted countries in the world can achieve this, then airports all over the world can too.