Cleaner Skies

Aviation sector moves towards renewables

By Sarthak Takyar

The aviation industry is carbon intensive and heavily dependent on oil and gas for flight operations. This is taking a toll on the environment. Thus, the industry is facing increasing pressure from environmentalists to clean up their emissions. Airplanes are not solely responsible for the industry’s carbon footprint; airports too have an equal role to play. As airports expand, more energy is required to power new terminals and ground transport vehicles leaving a negative impact on the environment. To address this problem, many airports across the world are incorporating greener elements into their design and operation strategies. They are also implementing eco-friendly initiatives such as recycling and reuse, water harvesting, and limiting plastic use. In the energy space, a shift from conventional to solar energy has emerged as a popular trend.

Airports have a significant potential for solar power generation given the availability of large, flat and shadow-free areas such as rooftops of terminals, hangars, car parks and land around runways. The solar power generated on airport premises can help meet the growing power requirements of terminals. This will reduce the electricity bills of airports, especially through net metering. Moreover, the increase in air-conditioning load coincides with the peak generation during summer months, compensating for the surge in power demand. With solar power, airports can reduce their carbon footprint and contribute towards the achievement of the country’s clean energy targets. A short gestation period, limited infrastructure requirement and a payback period of only four to five years are some of the other factors that make a strong case for solar power generation at airports.

Key challenges

The glare from solar panels can disturb the aircraft. This makes the installation of solar panels not only structurally challenging, but also a safety hazard. To prevent this, solar modules should be placed on terminal rooftops and away from runways. Shadow and glare analysis is also crucial while designing a solar power plant for an airport. The panels used near runways must be anti-glare and checked regularly to ensure that their anti-reflective coating is maintained. Moreover, the module structure should be able to withstand high wind speeds. Such preventive measures often result in cost and time overruns, making project development even more challenging.

Recenlty, Cochin International Airport, which became the first solar-powered airport faced some challenges. During the recent floods in Kerala, the airport authorities had to dismantle solar panels from one of its eight projects running on the premises. This was done after local residents complained that the canal-top projects at the airport were disrupting the flow of water during the floods.

Outlook

Despite such cases, the aviation industry’s sentiment towards solar projects has remained positive. The success of solar power at airports, especially in Kochi (40 MW), Kolkata (15 MW) and Hyderabad (10 MW), has spurred developers to set up many other solar projects at airports across India. The Airports Authority of India (AAI) has been urged by the civil aviation ministry to make more airports energy- neutral and powered by solar energy. To this end, the AAI has set a solar capacity target of more than 200 MW by 2020.

In a white paper on the “National Green Aviation Policy”, which has been put up for public comments, the civil aviation ministry has stated its plans to create a simplified regulatory regime to speed up clearances for airport development and other aviation projects while taking due care of environment sustainability. Besides, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation will assess the emissions from all aviation-related sources, their contribution to the local air quality and their effect on compliance with local air quality regulations. The white paper has also proposed a centre of excellence for green aviation, which will focus on identifying environment-friendly solutions for the aviation industry. If these initiatives see the light of day, they would strengthen the case for renewables in the aviation industry. Besides setting up solar projects at airports, the aviation industry is also working towards the use of greener fuels to run aircraft. A 45-minute flight from Dehradun to New Delhi on a SpiceJet aircraft partially powered by biojet fuel has opened new avenues. Meanwhile, in an adventurous ride, Solar Impulse, the world’s first round-the-world flight to be powered solely by solar energy, circled the earth. Though this aircraft is not commercially feasible, this experiment was able to bring cleaner technologies to people’s attention.

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