Kochi Airport – One That Runs On Solar Power And Saves Crores On Electricity Bills

  • Why other airports in India should emulate Kochi airport’s award-winning solar energy initiatives.

Last week, Cochin International Airport Limited (CIAL) in Kerala won a rare honour for India. The United Nations (UN) announced that the airport has been awarded “Champion of Earth Prize” for its solar power energy initiatives. The award followed a visit to the airport by UN Global Chief of Environment and Executive Director of UNEP Erik Solheim on 26 May and his talks with officials including Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan.

“I really want to go around the world and speak about the success story (of CIAL),” Solheim told a media conference. “If an airport in Kerala can run on solar power, why can’t we do that in terminals in other countries?” he wondered.

CIAL, a private public participation venture, was set up with equity participation from the Kerala government, non-resident Indians, industrialists, financial institutions and airport service providers. It is a unique entity with 18,000 shareholders from 29 countries, including the Kerala government.

The airport, which is seventh busiest in the country handling over 1,000 flights a week, requires 40,000 to 60,000 units of power daily for its operations. To meet its power needs, the airport was paying nearly Rs 3.5 lakhs a day to the Kerala Electricity Board.

According to V J Kurian, managing director of the airport and the brain behind its setting up, the airport took a conscious decision to go in for solar power to save the money being spent on electricity. Since the airport had plenty of space – it has the only 18-hole golf course in Kerala – it decided to tap the vast area near the cargo complex.

So, it put up 46,150 solar panels on 45 acres of its own land near the cargo complex and began producing power from August 2015. “The decision to go for solar power followed a pilot project held from 2013 when 100 kWp solar power plant was set up on the roof of the arrival terminal,” said Kurian. When the pilot project yielded positive result, the airport decided to test things on a bigger scale, opting for a one MWp solar plant on the roof and ground in the airport maintenance hangar facility.

“Based on the success of these, the airport decided to set up a solar power plant on a larger scale. It began producing 12 MWp as part of its green initiatives,” Kurian said.

The airport not only decided to produce power for its own use but also utilise it intelligently. For example, with many flights taking off late in the evening to destinations abroad, demand for power peaks at night, a time when solar power can’t be produced. They could have opted for battery storage but it wasn’t an economical solution. Therefore, the authorities decided to connect with the state electricity grid.

The power generated during the day time was fed into the grid to meet the demand of other industries from the state electricity board. In the evening when the airport needed electricity, power was bought back from the board. Thus began the story of the airport that was first in the world to use solar power fully for its operations.

Kurian said the plan was to initially produce 18 million units of power a year from the sun every year. It is equivalent to providing power to 10,000 homes for a year. This green power project is also equivalent to plant three million trees.

Airport sources say that this is an example of how alternative energy sources like solar power could be used for fully operating a big infrastructure project like an airport. The airport is producing nearly 30 MWp currently from solar power. The capacity will increase to 40 MWp by the end of the year. Savings for the airport from the electricity produced could top Rs 40 crore.

The airport uses the space between solar panels to grow vegetables. Currently, it grows 80 tonnes of organic vegetables a year. Kurian says airport employees get the first right of refusal to buy them. Anything in excess is offered to passengers.

Kurian said the airport was looking to tap other energy sources like setting up small turbines to tap power from water that flows from dams. The small turbines will help small hydro electric power stations to distribute power.

According to a statement from the airport, the Kerala government has issued an order for allocation of eight small hydro electric power projects to CIAL, which would produce 45.8 MW of power on build, own, operate and transfer basis. There are also requests from the Power Ministry to the airport to take up upper and lower Kallar small hydro power projects in Idukki district to produce 10 MW of power. These projects are likely to completed in three years.

CIAL broke even during 2003-04 fiscal and since then has never missed an opportunity to pay its shareholders, including the Kerala government, dividends. The airport has various plans up its sleeves to increase its income and ensure good return to its shareholders but its solar power initiative is one that will likely be followed by others. The Kolkata and Bengaluru airports are set to follow suit soon. We will hear more joining the queue.