KOCHI, INDIA - Entering or exiting Cochin International airport in India’s southern Kochi city, it is hard to miss the sea of solar panels glinting under the sun on a vast stretch of land on one side of the road and on top of a massive car park. Close by, a huge billboard proclaims the airport’s status as the world’s first airport fully powered by solar energy.
The journey to that title began with a pilot project five years ago as airport authorities searched for ways to minimize ever-growing power bills.
“We put solar panels on the rooftop of Terminal One, we observed it for a year and we found it is quite good and can be safely scaled up,” said the airport’s managing director, V.J.Kurian.
Now, the energy being produced by the sun-drenched airport’s solar plant meets its needs round the clock. The excess power harnessed by tens of thousands of solar panels during the day is stored in the city’s energy grid.
“We will produce the entire energy during these morning 10 hours and directly we will use some part of energy,” explained project manager Jerrin John Parakkal. “Excess energy we will bank to grid and then during nighttime we will take it back.”
In 2018 Cochin airport won one of the United Nations top environmental awards: Champions of the Earth Award for Entrepreneurial Vision. The project is a testament to India’s ambitions of rapidly scaling up the use of solar power to reduce its carbon emissions and has prompted other airports and infrastructure projects to explore the potential of solar energy.
Kurian, who led the project, recalls that initially there were doubts about the project’s financial viability — the cost of producing one megawatt of power was pegged at $1 million. But the falling price of solar panels in recent years brought down costs and helped make the ambitious project a reality.
“We get back our investment in less than six years time, which I thought was an excellent investment opportunity and next 25 years is meant for all profit,” Kurian said.
To retain the title it received in 2015 as the world’s first fully solar powered airport, the facility has steadily expanded capacity. The more than 29 megawatts currently produced will soon be scaled up to nearly 40 megawatts to meet the needs of ever-growing passenger traffic in a city that is Kerala’s commercial capital and a gateway to tourist destinations.
The solar panels had been placed on a large tract of unused land set aside for future cargo, but because usable land is the biggest challenge for solar projects, airport authorities have searched for alternatives. They found available space on top of the airport’s car park and a 2-kilometer canal.
Airport authorities estimate that the elimination of carbon emissions over 25 years would be equal to planting 3 million trees. And to make the green project even greener, organic vegetables are being grown under the solar panels and on spare land on the side. About 60 tons were produced last year and were sold to airport staff.
Interest in solar grows
The project has prompted interest from other airports in India and in some African countries, which are also eyeing the potential of solar power.
“We have signed an MOU (memorandum of understanding) with the government of Ghana. We have had a team from Liberia who were interested in us helping them to put up solar panels specially in the airport sector,” Kurian said.
The Cochin airport is being seen as a model of how from household rooftops to big infrastructure projects, sunny India is increasingly turning to solar power.
“They have a demonstration effect also. So many people walk through the airport. If they get to know that solar energy is being utilized on such a scale, that means it is a viable solution,” said Amit Kumar, a solar energy expert with the Energy and Resources Institute in New Delhi.
India’s massive rail sector is also turning to solar energy. Solar panels are being placed on top of some train coaches. A rail station in the northeastern city of Guwahati has begun generating enough solar power to meet its needs. The government is also exploring how highways could be lighted with solar lights.
India’s target of increasing its solar capacity to 100,000 megawatts by 2022 has attracted big investments in the sector. Japan’s SoftBank has promised to invest $20 billion in Indian solar projects, and some of the world’s largest solar parks are being built in the country. That has raised hopes that India will be able to meet its commitment of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions about 35 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.
However experts warn that the imposition of import duties last year on solar panels from China and Malaysia amid a push to increase indigenous manufacturing has affected the momentum of growth.
“It is moving fast, but in recent times there have been some hiccups (disruptions). I would say it is moving towards its target, at the moment a bit slowly,” Kumar said.