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World’s first solar airport takes off in southern India

The airport uses 46,000 solar panels spread across 45 acres to power all its electricity needs – and sells excess power to the government-run grid.

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    The solar panel array at Cochin International Airport in Kochi, India, produces enough power to supply the airport's needs and sells the excess back to the government's electric grid.
    Courtesy of Cochin International Airport
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Cochin International Airport in southern India’s Kerala state may be best known as the gateway to the tourist beaches and houseboats of the region’s famous backwaters. Now it has a new claim to fame: The world’s first solar airport.

Since August, the airport has used 46,000 solar panels laid across 45 acres to power all its electricity needs, and sell excess power to the government-run grid. At night, when the sun doesn’t shine, it pulls some of that power back from the grid, making the airport effectively “carbon neutral.”

The idea got its start in 2013, when rates to buy electricity from the Kerala State Electricity Board rose, just as the price of solar panels was quickly coming down.

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“We thought, ‘Why should we not be self-sufficient?’” remembers V.J. Kurian, the airport’s managing director. The airport, he said, “should be a model of how to reduce carbon emissions.”

That year, the facility installed its first solar panels on the roof of one of the terminals. That led to a further expansion and ultimately the decision to build a solar panel farm near the airport’s cargo complex, capable of meeting all the airport’s electricity needs, Kurian said.

Over the next 25 years, the project is expected to reduce carbon emissions by the equivalent of planting 3 million trees, he said.

The panels have also become a bit of tourist attraction of their own. Richard Nelson, a mechanical engineer living in Tokyo and working on renewable energy efforts, spent part of a recent visit to the region strolling through the airport’s solar panel array.

“Why shouldn’t this be in our airports [in Japan] too?” he asked, calling the project, “a marvelous solar experiment.”

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The move to solar power is also expected to help cut pollution in Kochi, an industrial city ranked the 24th most polluted in India, according to a survey by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute and the Indian Institute of Technology.

Those institutions ranked Kochi as having “severe” air pollution problems, driven by rapid industrialization and a growing numbers of vehicles on the streets.

A study between 2009 and 2013 by the Kerala State Pollution Board found that emissions of suspended particulate in the air were beyond healthy levels – another driving factor in the airport’s decision to experiment with solar energy.

The Kochi airport’s solar project has not gone unnoticed in the rest of India. Based on the results at Kochi, India’s government has directed 125 airports run by the Airport Authority of India to generate at least 1 megawatt of solar power each by March 2016.

If a medium-sized airport such as Kochi, with just 1,300 acres of land, can produce sufficient electrical power for its operations, larger airports such as Delhi, with 5,000 acres, and Bangalore, with 3,000 acres, should be able to meet some of their power demand too, said Kurian, the Kochi airport’s managing director.

“We are expecting not only other Indian airports, but airports in other countries, also to follow suit,” he said. “Every day we are being asked for expert advice and are answering queries from across the world.”

This story originally ran at the website of Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's rights, trafficking, and corruption. Visit www.trust.org.

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