A second South Asian airport is to be entirely solar-powered but there are growing concerns about the lack of regulation

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has granted approval to a proposal to finance the development of a solar power plant at Siddharthanagar Gautam Buddha airport in Nepal. The project will require approximately USD10 million in estimated investments and is aimed at establishing Siddharthanagar as the second fully solar powered airport worldwide, following India’s Cochin International airport.


Summary:

  • A small Nepalese Airport is to become the world’s second one that is fully solar-powered;
  • Cochin Airport has become the benchmark for this activity – it even sells electricity to the Indian national grid;
  • But there are a number of safety implications, the most evident of which is glare affecting pilots’ vision.

The potential to use solar power at airports was investigated in two CAPA – Centre for Aviation reports in 2015, just as Cochin airport became the first to use the technology to the degree where it was self-sufficient in power generation solely from that source. At that time solar power was not specifically on the agenda of ICAO or ACI despite a growing concern that airports should be as environmentally sufficient as possible.

But still, more than 100 airports worldwide had already invested in supplying a portion of their energy needs by way of solar power. The majority were in North America (38%), followed by Asia Pacific and Europe. Despite abundant sunshine both the Middle East and Africa were on just 1%. That number has risen since. After all, airports often have spare land they are always trying to find a use for and solar panels farms tick many boxes.

A big question remains though… as a sustainability measure is this solution sustainable. The installation of solar power panels, within airport land or nearby, remains unregulated, leading to concerns that safety issues could arise. Eight potential safety implications have been identified of which reflection of sunlight into cockpit crews’ eyes is the most obvious.

In Europe at least, at present no specific regulations address the safety impact of airport solar panel fields. The aviation authorities in several States though do routinely require airports to assess the reflection of sunlight from them.

Considerable attention was paid to the installation at Cochin, which was ground-breaking at the time and not only Indian but foreign airports have been investigating the Cochin model. Cochin was already notable for a number of firsts, including being the earliest example of an airport built under a public private partnership (PPP) in that country.

The decision to generate all power there from solar means was prompted by excessive power bills. The airport was the seventh busiest in India (now the eighth) and consumed nearly 48,000 units of electricity, costing INR336,000 (USD4,800 as of 21-Jun-2019), each day.

A 12 MW solar PV plant was brought on line, spread over 50 acres (18 hectares) and containing 46,000 panels, having taken six months to complete and at a cost of USD9.5 million. The company was hopeful of recouping the costs in less than six years.

The solar power plant can generate between 50,000 and 60,000 kWh per day (18 to 22 million units annually), which in other circumstances could supply around 10,000 homes in the country for one year.

Through the use of this renewable energy source, Cochin airport aims to save over 300,000 tonnes of CO2 over the next 25 years, the equivalent of planting three million trees.

The airport was quickly rated as “grid neutral”, meaning it will give back more than it consumes from the grid. Electricity generated from the system is fed into the power grid and the airport will use equivalent power from the utility. The plant is expected to produce much more than what the airport would consume, and for this purpose a power purchase agreement was signed with Kerala State Electricity Board to sell any surplus power that the airport doesn’t retain for night-time needs and emergencies.

The combined capacity of solar installations at Cochin airport is more than the solar PV system installed at Indianapolis International airport in the US, which, at the time, held the record for the world’s largest  airport solar plant.

The Indian airport demonstrated that private sector participation in airport management (participation which in this case includes 10,000 expatriates) can put it at the forefront of innovation. In a country where more than 300 million people still have no access to power, it is demonstrating that going solar may just be a solution to a variety of challenges, and not just at India’s airports. Siddharthanagar Gautam Buddha Airport is much smaller than Cochin with around 200,000 passengers each year but will soon launch international services and may grow quickly.

LEARN MORE… Read the CAPA – Centre for Aviation reports on how solar power was beginning to generate stellar savings for airports from Nov-2015: Part One and Part Two