Where airports and the environment clash you just can’t win. Now the world’s leading airport user of solar panels is removing them for fear of flooding

India’s Cochin International Airport Ltd (CIAL) has started dismantling and removing a significant number of solar panels at the airport site, due to concerns from local residents regarding the potential for the panels to inhibit storm water discharge. CIAL estimates the measure will result in the loss of approximately 4MWp (megawatt peak) for the airport.

It is understood the panels are in a three-kilometre stretch on the diversion canal from the Chengal canal near the airport and removal began after local people’s representatives demanded it, citing them as the reason for recent flooding in the area. Airport financial losses are already estimated to have reached six Crore (INR60 million or USD836,000).

A CIAL official said, “We have started removing the solar panels though we are not yet convinced of the logic put forward against it”. The power generation loss on account of the removal of the panels is cited as a major setback for the state which is reeling under an acute power deficit.

CIAL, the first airport in India to be operated under a public-private-partnership and regarded as a mover and shaker in the sub-Continent, acquired worldwide respect also for becoming the first globally to generate all its power from solar panels, in Aug-2015.

A 12 MW solar PV plant was installed near the cargo area, 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. Since then the power output has been increased on several occasions. Not only that, it exports some of that power for local non-airport use and even into the national grid.

As reported in a recent The Blue Swan Daily article, The Asian Development Bank 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 Cochin.

But, as the article also made clear numerous issues have started to arise over the deployment of masses of these panels close to airports. Their installation, 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.

Solar power is one of the more credible methods of generating non-fossil fuel power; considerably more so than wind farms, or the re-use of captured carbon, or the kinetic energy generated by Greta Thunberg rowing across the Atlantic.

But if it is to be adopted even more widely by the airport business these non-idealistic issues need to be understood, aired, debated and resolved so that the vast potential for airports to contribute to ‘climate change’ response, and to underline their green credentials, is enhanced.