Africa’s First Solar Powered Airport Works Toward Grid Independence

South Africa’s George Airport is one of nine in the country that is aiming to reduce grid dependence.
Published: Wed 02 Mar 2016

Increasingly, airports are turning to solar power to reduce escalating energy costs, improve reliability and harness additional non-aeronautical revenue streams such as solar car ports. In addition to this (and rather importantly), solar airports are demonstrating a commitment to sustainability. To date, over 100 airports have invested in solar power  to supply their energy needs, according to CAPA, the centre for aviation. Collectively they generate over 400MW of energy.

Airports are an ideal location for solar generating installations as the large flat surfaces both on the ground and on top of buildings (terminals, administrative, hangars, etc.) allow for significantly sized solar installations to be installed.

Last year, India’s Cochin airport became the world’s first airport to be entirely powered by solar power [Cochin Airport Demonstrates 100% Solar Potential]. This month, another “first” has been announced: George Airport, located in the Western Cape, South Africa, has become Africa’s first solar-powered airport.

The airport, which serves over 600,000 passengers annually, has launched a clean energy project which, during its first phase, will contribute around 40% of the airport’s electricity needs. The balance will be drawn from the national grid with supply capacity steadily being increased as per demand factors. The plant is designed to deliver 750kW power to the airport once complete, enabling the airport to become energy independent.

The installation of the photovoltaic panels cost nearly US$1million (ZAR16 million). The panels cover a space of 200m2. The project was launched March last year.

ACSA’s sustainability plans

The use of renewable energy is in line with the Airports Company South Africa’s (ACSA) sustainability goals and the development of the plant at George Airport is also aligned with the company’s goal to reduce its reliance on the national power grid.

State-owned ACSA, which manages the airport and eight others, is aiming to get all nine airports running on solar energy. Should they need a working model to look up to for guidance, ACSA can turn to India’s Cochin International Airport Limited which spent US$9.5 million on its solar project. Last year, Cochin’s solar plant was set to produce 60,000 units of electricity a day — more than enough to meet its daily requirements. The airport only consumes about 48,000 units on average. The excess power is stored with the state power grid for rainy days and night-time requirements.

 Skhumbuzo Macozoma, Chairman of the ACSA Board, says the company will introduce an energy mix into all its airports and its long term vision, from 2025 -2030, is to achieve carbon neutrality in energy consumption and run Green Airports in order to achieve a Green Building Council of South Africa six star rating.

“…part of our strategic objective is to minimise our environmental impact. There are a number of key drivers ACSA needs to manage to reach this objective and these include reducing energy consumption, water consumption, percentage of waste recycled, noise levels and energy efficient materials usage, amongst others. Harnessing solar power is a viable cleaner energy source which contributes towards diversifying the energy mix.”

Solar: revenue generation for airports

George Airport’s decreasing dependence on the grid is good news for Eskom which has been struggling to keep up with the country’s increasing consumption needs. If big power users like airports become self-sustaining facilities, this would relieve the highly pressured national electricity grid which is suffering due to insufficient capacity and ageing network infrastructure. This has resulted in recurring power outages and mammoth price hikes.  [Power Producers Going Off-Grid in South Africa] [Eskom Applies For a 16% Tariff Increase] [Time to Privatise South Africa’s Power Sector].

George Airport should also be reaping the rewards of solar power as this will certainly reduce its energy bill, increase power reliability and open the door to additional revenue streams. Added to this self sustainability, is the potential for the airport to share it with the rest of the community in the form of employment, skills upliftment and even emergency power.  According to ACSA, there are plans to “extend this (solar energy) to the broader community within the George municipality.”

With solar energy being abundant in Africa, the George airport solar project should be a stepping stone and a leading example to other African countries to harness this source of energy.

The potential is certainly there but will investment and government backing prove to be an obstacle for these projects? [ African Utility Week-Is Africa Open For Business? ]

Further reading

CAPA-Centre for Aviation- Airports & the environment: Solar power begins generating stellar savings. Part 1 - 100 airports act