A host of factors contributed to Cochin Airport becoming fully solar powered and now, other airports in India are taking cue and following suit
Opt for a window seat if flying in or out of the Cochin Airport and you will be greeted by a sea of solar photo voltaic (PV) panels. Its expanse is a thing of beauty. Solar PV installations can be seen on rooftops, car ports, along the runaways and on any land, not required for airport operations.
As of November 2018, with 40 MW worth of installations, it became the first airport in the world to be powered solely by solar energy.
“Under the insistence of VJ Kurian, the mastermind behind the airport, the first solar project was conceptualised way back in 2012,” says Satish Kumar Pai, chief engineer at Cochin International Airport Ltd (CIAL).
The first 100 kW of solar PV, lining the international arrival terminal’s rooftop, became operational in early 2013. This was followed by Kerala’s first megawatt-scale solar PV project — a one MW solar PV project near the CIAL Academy building — commissioned the same year within the airport premises too.
Despite this feat, not many imagined that the project would grow to its current size. But over the years, the technology has made a case for itself.
How did Cochin Airport do it?
First, the technology efficiencies were increasing and the costs falling at unprecedented rates. Solar energy was gaining traction nationally, and the industry experience was reducing the cost of installations further. The technology presented a cheaper powering alternative.
Second, the local utility, Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) was hiking the grid tariffs, and as a commercial establishment, the airport’s tariff were hiked to Rs 7 per unit. At this rate, the 1.1 MW solar plant, with a daily generation of 4,400 units, was saving the airport Rs 30,000 daily on their electricity bills.
Annually, it was a significant Rs 1.1 crore. If redirected towards repaying the cost of the system, anywhere between 7.5–8 crore, the airport would be in the clear in a little over seven years. Following this, the airport technically had a free source of generation within its premises (barring a meagre operation and maintenance costs which amounts to one per cent of the total cost of the system).
Third, the airport was intent on decreasing its emissions (and its carbon footprint) and adoption of solar energy aligned with this view. In rough numbers, every kWh of solar energy generation saves one kg of CO2 emissions.
Today, the solar plant at the Cochin Airport generates about 1.6 lakh units a day, avoiding 1.6 lakh kg of CO2 emissions. Further assuming that the alternative would be grid connected coal generation, by adopting solar energy it is also avoiding one gm of particulate matter (PM), eight gms of SOx and five gms of NOx for kWh of electricity generated from its solar PV plant.
The electricity bill savings combined with the obvious environmental benefits meant that solar energy was no longer a whim but a necessity.
Unfortunately, the airport was running out of rooftop space. But it was quickly decided that the land set aside for future cargo expansion would be utilised for solar PV installations instead.
“The ready availability of large swathes of land, acquired at its inception, removed a huge bottleneck for the Cochin Airport,” PV Sivaprasad, director at KSERC, when explaining why other airports have failed to make similar attempts.
Post August 2015, projects came up quickly (see table below). Fast forward to November 2018 and the last of the 40 MW solar plant began generating electricity.
Pai added that since the newer systems costed considerably lesser and are more efficient, “their capital cost would be retrieved in 5-6 years”. Further, the airport is expected to grow as it has over the last five years; between 2012 and 2018, the number of passengers and the cargo passing through the Cochin Airport doubled.
This growing demand will be met through even cheaper solar energy. “The airport is looking at another 10 MW of solar PV,” says Pai.
Cochin Airport - Various stages to the 40 MW
The success of the Cochin Airport is in large part accountable to the cooperation of the KSEB. The utility allows net metering, which is the net balancing of electricity fed and drawn from the grid.
This means the excess energy generated during the high irradiation periods, typically in the day, can be exported to the grid and utilised later by the airport in periods of low generation, typically nighttime and overcast days. The storing of energy till it is needed is called banking, another facility provided by the KSEB at no extra costs.
The alternative would an expensive battery backup. The self-sustenance that the Cochin Airport boasts would not be a reality without these two distinct services.
Kurian had once said: “Worldwide solar energy is the fastest growing source of green energy. We are entering a new era, where energy from renewable resources is the only sustainable solution towards a healthier planet. We are determined to lead the way and to continue our innovations”.
He was completely on point; other airports across India have taken cue and embraced solar energy. The Union Ministry of Civil Aviation too, in its 2019 National Green Aviation Policy, hopes ‘to enable and promote development and maximum usage of solar and other renewable energy in the civil aviation ecosystem’.
Today, led by the Cochin example, solar energy is featuring in more and more airports across India. All in all, both the Airport Authority of India (AAI) and the private players in the industry have understood and are capitalising on the technology.
Over 20 Indian airports including Delhi, Chennai, Hyderabad, Kolkata and have either installed or are in the process of installing some capacity of solar within its premises. There are even examples of airports, including those in Amritsar and Coimbatore, looking at open access of solar energy.
For an industry with high contribution to human-induced carbon emissions globally, this transition is an encouraging one.
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