Case study: Cochin International Airport Ltd (CIAL)

Industry News

Case Study 4
Sector- infrastructure
Case in focus: Cochin International Airport Ltd (CIAL)

Airports are a part of the critical infrastructure for a growing economy. However, the aviation industry globally accounts for over 2% of the total energy related carbon emissions. Leading aircraft manufacturers like Boeing and Airbus have implemented ways to increase efficiency and reduce emissions as part of climate change mitigation plans. The efforts by airports are not too far behind.

As per the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA), 55 airports in India have already installed solar power. These include both the private operators as well as AAI-operated facilities. It is a great initiative considering the GoI is promoting the use of renewable energy across sectors.

The airports have set up the solar power plants under the net metering captive model. Solar panels are installed in airports in two ways - as rooftops and ground mounted. Also, airports have vast area of unused land that can be used to install solar panels.

As part of the climate mitigation initiative of the country, the MoCA has taken steps to work towards carbon neutrality and Net Zero carbon emissions at the airport. Solar installations at the airport is one of the first visible steps in this direction. The Ministry has also advised airport operators to map their carbon emissions and work towards carbon neutrality in a phased manner.

Airports Authority of India (AAI) is the apex body responsible for creating, upgrading, maintaining, and managing civil aviation infrastructure both on the ground and air space in the country. It has planned a cumulative solar capacity of 150 MW over a period of time. The plants will be installed on surplus land available with AAI and at large roof tops across the AAI structures. This is in addition to what the private airports are installing.

India can boast of having the world’s first solar powered airport—the Cochin International Airport Limited (CIAL). It has total capacity of 40 MW on net metering basis. The details will be discussed a little later as CIAL is the airport in focus of this study.

In 2021, one of the busiest airports in the country Delhi International Airport Limited (DIAL) popularly known as the Indira Gandhi International Airport announced its plan to achieve Net Zero by 2030. This will be achieved through a combination of controlling carbon emissions and reduction through carbon offsetting. A GMR-led consortium that operates the airport, is utilizing renewable energy from solar rooftop panels and in the first phase added a capacity of 7.84 MW, and the total capacity addition is 20 MW. Delhi is the second largest airport in the country in terms of solar capacity.

The third airport which has a large solar energy installation is Hyderabad. Currently, GMR Hyderabad International Airport Ltd (GHIAL) has a capacity of 5 MW which will be increased to a total of 30 MW.

In June 2021, Bangalore International Airport Limited (BIAL), the operating company of Kempegowda International Airport, Bengaluru, announced that they have achieved net energy neutral status in fiscal year 2020-21. As per reports, the airport has saved approximately 22 lakh units of electricity. This, experts say is enough to power nearly 9,000 houses for a month.

The rooftop installations at airports may not be as tough as seen in the other segments. Airports have two major advantages that work in their favour—availability of large rooftops on the terminals, and large land parcels. However, reflections from the panels can sometimes pose a risk to incoming aircrafts.

It is interesting to note that airports have adopted solar energy at scale in a phased manner earlier than other sectors. This is yielding results in a major way, thus helping airports to reduce their carbon footprint. This is one of the best examples of solar energy being harnessed at scale. Solar energy adoption is helping airports to increase sustainable operations.

It will be interesting for airport stakeholders to visit a platform like The smarter E India / Intersolar India 2022, organized from 7-9 December 2022 at Gandhinagar, Gujarat, to understand more about the available technologies and other trends in solar.

CIAL adopts solar for sustainable development

Cochin International Airport Ltd (CIAL) is the world’s first airport to be fully powered by solar energy. A huge establishment like an airport requires a high volume of energy to operate. And by using green energy, CIAL aims hopes to contribute to a healthier and greener planet.

One of the innovations, which proved that relying on green energy is possible even for high-energy consumers like an airport, won CIAL the Champions of the Earth award by the UN. It is rare for airport operators to tread into the business of green energy production.

“Aviation is one of the fields which is being reprimanded for producing greenhouse gases. Now, CIAL believes that it is our responsibility to venture into green energy projects, thereby reducing our carbon footprint,” opines S. Suhas, IAS, Managing Director, CIAL.

CIALs solar initiatives:

CIAL became the first airport in the world to completely operate on solar power using 46,150 solar panels laid across 45 acres near the cargo complex.

Overall, the airport has 2.25 lakh sq ft of solar carport with an installed capacity to generate 2.7 MW power from around 8,500 solar panels. It can accommodate 2500 cars at a time.

“We have seven plants near airport premises with a cumulative capacity of 40 MW. We are in the process of adding more capacity,” informs S. Suhas.

The green energy journey:

According to reports, the aviation industry accounts for 11 per cent of all transportation-related emissions in the United States. In India, the percentage may be much lower, yet it is quite significant.

CIAL’s experiments in producing green energy achieved another milestone as the company has introduced cost-effective high-density polyethene floats using French technology upon which 1300 photovoltaic panels were mounted and laid over two artificial lakes located in the 130-acre CIAL golf course.

The plants covering a total area of one acre are connected to the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) power grid. CIAL successfully executed the idea of Total Sustainability Management (TSM) in its golf course where treated water from the sewage treatment plant of the airport is used for water harvesting with the help of 12 artificial lakes. The water from these lakes is used for irrigating the lawns of the golf course.

“CIAL’s objective was not to offset airplane-related emissions at the airport but to take a small step towards powering the entire airport and allied facilities through solar energy and to send out a message to the world that a medium-sized airport can become self-sufficient using solar power,” S. Suhas says.

CIAL has eight solar plants on the airport premises. The biggest one near the cargo terminal has an area of 48 acres of which 20 acres is being used for agri-voltaic practice.

Agri voltaic procedure:

In 2021, CIAL scaled up the farming practice by incorporating the modern method of agri-voltaic procedure. Vegetables like yam, long yard bean, drumsticks, mountain ginger, turmeric, cabbage, cauliflower, and green chilli are produced in these farms. Water used to clean solar photovoltaic panels is being used for irrigation.

“The crops can modify the micro-climates below PV modules by reducing the temperature which increases efficiency in power generation. Moreover, the crop coverage in between PV arrays prevents soil erosion and reduce the dust load on the PV module,” said S. Suhas.

“Another advantage is that the cultivation dampens the weed growth underneath the PV panel mounts,” he adds.

4.5 MWp hydro-electric project at Arippara, Kozhikode

The 4.5 MWp run-off river small hydro project (SHP) was awarded to CIAL by the Power Department, Government of Kerala, as per the Kerala Small Hydropower policy under the Built-Own-Operate-Transfer (BOOT) model for a lease period of 30 years. The CIAL SHP at Arippara works on limited storage of water causing no adverse effects on the environment.

12 MWp terrain-based solar power plant at Payyannur, Kannur

The terrain-based installation increases the land utilization compared to flat land and decreases the space between the solar module arrays. As a result, the land area required for solar PV installation is reduced to approximately 2.75 Acres / MW as compared to 3.75 Acres / MW in flat land. CIAL was able to install 35% additional capacity from the land area as compared to a typical flat ground south-oriented installation.

The cumulative capacity of CIAL’s power plant now is 50 MWp, producing 2 lakh units of electricity per day and 7.3 crore units of power yearly.

“We all can be change agents in considering and designing sustainable outcomes in the world around us that affect systemic wellbeing. CIAL frames sustainability as a practice that helps us to create a future that we are excited about living in,” concludes S. Suhas.


Info bulb:

CIAL has won the Champions of the Earth award by the UN

Box: Solar history:

2013: Installed the first solar project
2015: Became the first airport in the world to completely operate on solar power
2021: Scaled up farming practice by incorporating agri-voltaic procedures

Box: A cumulative installed capacity of 50 MWp includes:

  • 7.3 crore units of green energy produced annually
  • Reduces carbon footprint by 28,000 metric tons per year
  • Equivalent to the fresh air that we get by planting 46 lakh trees for 10 years
  • Equivalent to saving 1.19 crore litres of fossil fuel every year
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