Flying towards a greener tomorrow possible

Starehe Girls' Centre Solar panels the School were awarded for winning Zayed Future Energy Prize(ZFEP) award, in the school on July 30, 2022. [Boniface Okendo, Standard]

It’s no longer news that Cochin International Airport, one of the busiest airports in India in terms of international traffic, is running fully on solar energy.

The solar initiative had won the Cochin International Airport Limited (CIAL), the Champions of the Earth Award of the United Nations in the Entrepreneurial Vision category in 2018. It is actually the story of a disruptive vision towards climate change mitigation.

By gradually augmenting its green energy capacity, the company has recently reached the milestone of cumulative production volume of 25 crore units, offsetting 1,60,000 metric tons of carbon emission – thus expanding its green footprint far beyond the airport itself.

A huge establishment like an airport requires a high amount of energy. And by using green energy, the CIAL is contributing towards a healthier and greener planet. The aviation industry accounts for 11 per cent of all transportation-related emissions in the US.

In India, the percentage may be lower, yet it is significant. The CIAL’s objective is not just to offset airplane-related emissions but to take steps towards powering the entire airport and allied facilities through solar energy and send out a message to the world that a medium-sized airport can become self-sufficient on solar power.

According to S Suhas, the Managing Director, the CIAL has always strictly adhered to cost-effectiveness and sustainable development as far as the solar energy is concerned, and since the country enjoys about 300 sunny days a year, it was an ideal option.

“Relying upon alternative energy for running an airport actually was a precarious idea. As the pioneer of the PPP model in airport infrastructure development in India, our founding managing director V J Kurian always wanted to take up newer challenges. When we realised our power bill was on the higher side, our management contemplated possibilities. The idea of tapping the green power came in,” said Mr Suhas. 

It all started with a pilot project in 2013 with the installation of a 100 KV solar power plant. The solar panels were fixed upon the roof top of terminals. This led to creation of a dedicated company, the CIAL Infrastructures Limited (CIL), entrusted with green energy production. After much deliberations the CIAL took a calculated risk of switching fully to solar energy.  

Two factors were in our favour; one was the falling prices of solar panels in the international market which would go on to drastically reduce the installation cost of a solar plant. The second was the high cost of grid-supplied thermal power (around Rs.7 per unit) along with the perpetual risk of further tariff hike, explains Mr Suhas. The state government’s encouragement also proved to be vital. The state government facilitated private solar power generators to sell excess power through the state- owned power grid. This helped CIL focus on generation and grid synchronisation and save on power storage.

Since the inception of the first solar plant, the CIAL has been exploring possibility of generating more solar power at the airport’s premises itself. By utilising the large roof top of the aircraft maintenance hangar building and some vacant area adjacent to the Aviation Academy building, they could ramp up the capacity to one megawatt. This was completed in November 2013, and it was the first megawatt scale solar plant in Kerala.

During 2014 the airport’s daily requirement was approximately 48,000 units and an additional 12 MW capacity was required to the existing 1.1 MW to make the airport totally carbon neutral.

By 2015, it became the first airport in the world to be fully powered by solar energy. By 2019, when the project broke even, it could generate 2 lakhs units of power a day whereas the airport’s daily power consumption stood at 1.6 lakhs of units.