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Indian airport shines as solar-power role model

50,000 solar panels generate all the electricity for Cochin International Airport. (Courtesy of Cochin International Airport)

COCHIN, India -- Cochin International Airport in the south of India currently does what no other airport in the world can do: get 100% of its electricity from solar power.

     That impressive feat has moved the Modi administration to augment its renewable energy policy with a call for all airports in India to install solar panels.

     And with representatives from airports in other countries also coming to take a look, the Cochin model could inspire airports around the world to tap solar power for their energy needs.

     To test the solar-power waters, Cochin International Airport Limited, also known as CIAL, initially installed 4,400 solar panels back in 2013. The decision to take the real plunge came this past February, and between then and August the company installed an additional 46,150 panels over an area of approximately 18 hectares.     

The amount of sunshine increases during November to June, helping CIAL to generate power.

     The current total of 50,000-plus solar panels has a combined capacity of 13.1 megawatts and generates a daily average of 52,400 units of electricity. With an average daily consumption of 48,000 units, the system supplies the airport with more than 100% of the electricity it needs.

     "We didn't know that we could be the first airport in the world to be fully powered by solar energy," admitted CIAL general manager Jose Thomas. The objective was never to be in the Guinness Book of Records. In fact, Thomas only realized the airport was breaking new ground when he read a news report in July about the Seymour Airport in the Galapagos Islands, which made headlines by becoming the world's first airport to run entirely on renewable energy. Seymour Airport uses a combination of solar and wind power, so "then we knew that we were the first in the world powered only by solar."

     CIAL placed an order for a system of 46,150 solar panels with Bosch, whose arm in India installed the system using the German engineering giant's own control and monitoring systems, a set of 265-watt-peak solar panels made by Chinese company ReneSola, and megawatt-class inverters provided by European company ABB.

     The airport operator also struck a deal with the Kerala State Electricity Board to "deposit" surplus electricity from its solar power system into the Kerala power grid in exchange for a yearly payout made every September. Being connected to the grid also means there is no danger of power shortages. The two sides agreed to a purchase price of 4.5 rupees (roughly $0.07) per unit of electricity. "It is not really a good price, but it is to our have another source of income instead of just having power as a cost component," Thomas explained.     

Cochin International Airport is the seventh-largest airport in India, handling around 70 flights every day.

     Cochin is currently the seventh busiest airport in India. Passenger traffic grew 19% in the year ending March 2015 to 6.4 million people, and a new terminal is scheduled to open in June of 2016 with more growth expected.

     In step with this facility expansion, the company intends to install more solar panels, adding the equivalent of 2.4 megawatts of capacity at the start of 2016, and another 8 megawatts in June.

     CIAL did not embark on this solar power project in order to become a standard-bearer of the nation's environmental policy. "It was only because in late 2012, KSEB said they would hike the unit price of power from 5 rupees to 7 rupees," explained managing director V.J. Kurian.

     In other words, CIAL acted to avoid a huge increase in electricity costs that would choke its profits. India imports much of the coal that serves as the main power generation fuel, and CIAL saw solar power as an alternative future to one of rising expenditure.

     The company has spent 700 million rupees ($10.5 million) on solar power infrastructure to date, but that is recoverable in less than six years because it eliminates 120 million rupees a year in electricity costs. Bosch will shoulder the costs of equipment maintenance, weed removal, and certain other expenses for the first five years, with CIAL taking over responsibility afterwards, but the company is only looking at expenses of around 6 million rupees a year.

     In short, adopting a solar power system will be beneficial to the bottom line for CIAL.

Sound investment 

Airport operators are not exactly known for acumen when it comes to the management of revenues and expenditures, so CIAL stands out for its business sense.     

Cochin International Airport needs to mow 18 hectares to keep 50,000 solar panels in the sunshine.

     Though it is not a publicly traded company, CIAL has 18,000 shareholders. The government of the state of Kerala owns 32% of the company and is the largest shareholder. Non-resident Indians living in 35 different countries own 33%, and Indian citizens resident in Kerala and elsewhere in India own 12%.

     The reason for this semi-private organization dates back to the formation of the company in 1994.

     During the 1980s, increasing numbers of people from Kerala began taking jobs in the Middle East and it became clear that the state needed to have its own international airport. Lacking funds in public coffers, the state government called on wealthy business people in and out of India to invest in the airport project.

     Cochin International Airport has proven to be a good investment: with a net profit margin of 35% in the year ending March 2015, CIAL has paid out a cash dividend for 12 straight years and is now the fourth busiest airport in India in terms of international traffic, behind only the international airports in Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai.

     Of course, converting to solar power has more than just financial benefits. "This will avoid carbon dioxide emissions from coal fired power plants by 300,000 metric tons, which is equivalent to planting three million trees," Thomas noted.

     The national government of India has hitched a ride on the airport's efforts, with the Ministry of Civil Aviation instructing all airports to quickly install the equivalent of at least 1 megawatt of solar panels at their facilities. The airports in Bangalore and Hyderabad will be early adopters of the Cochin model.

     In a related development, the 21st United Nations Climate Change Conference will be convened at end of November in Paris, and the government of India has declared a goal of achieving "about 40 percent cumulative electric power installed capacity from non-fossil fuel based energy resources by 2030" as part of its intended nationally determined contribution. That compares with the roughly 30% of electricity production now provided by nuclear power and renewable energies, and Cochin International Airport provides a textbook example of what can be achieved with solar power.

     The Cochin model has gained the attention not only of the Indian government and other domestic airports, but also of airports abroad. Delegations from Liberia and Malaysia have already made the pilgrimage to Cochin, and Vietnam also has expressed interest.     

Jose Thomas, general manager of Cochin International Airport, headed the solar-power project.

     Roberts International Airport in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, plans to transplant the Cochin model and is set to ink a three-party agreement with CIAL and Bosch. CIAL is expected to serve as an adviser for the project.

     "We could do this. Establishing solar plants is not a very difficult task," Thomas exclaimed.

     Excluding airports in congested urban areas, every airport has large tracts set aside for future expansion, and all can install solar plants, Thomas noted. "I don't know why they are not doing this."

     The efficiency of solar power depends on how much daily sunlight a region receives, but Thomas' assertion certainly holds for places closer to the equator, meaning the airports of many developing nations are well placed geographically to adopt the Cochin model.

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