V J Kurian, Managing Director

Cochin International Airport (CIAL)

Interview

March 28, 2017

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V J Kurian, Managing Director, CIAL

V J Kurian, Managing Director, CIAL

Cochin International Airport (CIAL) is the first airport in the world to be completely powered by solar energy. V J Kurian, Managing Director, CIAL, talks to AIBM about the challenges this unique initiative brought.

What fired your imagination to build a solar-powered airport?

Cochin International Airport (CIAL), which became operational in 1999, is the first public-private partnership model airport in India; the fourth busiest airport in terms of international traffic; and the seventh busiest in terms of total traffic.

A huge power consumer, the airport requires an average of approximately 48,000 kilowatt-hours daily, leading to its special categorisation by the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) in early 2013. Its power tariff was almost doubled from INR 4 to INR 7 per unit (kWh). This increased our annual electricity cost to approximately INR 120 Million — our second biggest expenditure after employee costs.

Although KSEB’s move adversely affected CIAL’s financials, it was also a blessing in disguise. It forced us to explore ways to conserve electricity. We focussed on energy-saving initiatives, opting for LEDs and energy-efficient airport equipment.

I also deputed a team of engineers to explore the possibility of captive generation of solar power, by putting up a small pilot plant of 100 kWp capacity with 400 solar panels on the rooftop of the International arrival block. Following the commissioning of the plant in March 2013, the solar capacity at CIAL was scaled up to 1 MWp through 4000 solar panels, on the roof of the aircraft maintenance hangar and the ground.

The huge success of these two plants encouraged us to attempt a project of 12 MWp capacity, to realise our goal of making CIAL absolutely ‘power neutral’. 12 MWp capacity was chosen because along with the existing 1.1 MWp plants, it would be capable of generating approximately 52,000 kilowatt-hours of power on an average, daily, to ensure grid neutrality.

When construction of the 12 MWp solar power plant commenced in March 2015, I didn’t realise that this project will make CIAL the first airport in the world to be completely powered by solar energy. Our main objective then was to utilize green energy to the maximum while insulating CIAL from the spiralling cost of energy generated from fossil fuels.

Cochin International Airport

Cochin International Airport

What were the challenges in building the first solar-powered airport in the world?

The main challenge was to identify about 45 acres of land within the airport to install about 46,150 panels for the 12 MWp solar PV plant. We have set up our 12 MWp plant in 45 acres of vacant land outside the operational area, which was earmarked for future expansion of the cargo terminal. We have set aside space for the immediate expansion of the cargo terminal. Whenever additional land is required, we will remove the panels from the ground, and install them on the roofs of the buildings in this area.

What was the cost incurred?

The total cost incurred for this ambitious project was INR 620 million.

How and when do you hope to recover the cost?

At the existing power tariff of INR 7 per unit, the project cost is expected to be recovered in less than six years.

What was the staff strength for the initiative?

Our subsidiary company, CIAL Infrastructures Ltd, has implemented the PV solar project. It is a lean organisation with seven employees, responsible for implementing and maintaining this plant.

What are the benefits?

Apart from the reduction of recurring costs, the project also demonstrates our commitment to environmental sustainability by reducing carbon emissions by more than 300,000 metric tonnes over the next 25 years — equivalent to planting three million trees or not driving 750 million miles. CIAL’s PV solar system will generate over 450 million units of clean electricity in the next 25 years.

Completely powered by solar energy, CIAL is a pioneer of green airports

Completely powered by solar energy, CIAL is a pioneer of green airports

A survey by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute and the Indian Institute of Technology had positioned Cochin at 24th place in terms of industrial pollution. What is CIAL’s contribution?

Through the sizeable reduction in carbon emissions over the next two decades, CIAL’s solar plant will definitely abate pollution.

As a pioneer, does CIAL plan to commercialise its offerings in terms of technical assistance and setting up similar ventures in India and abroad?

CIAL has already initiated steps to increase the solar capacity from the present 13 MWp to 29 MWp by December 2016, to cater to the increasing demand of electricity, after the commissioning of the new international terminal building and also to continue our status as a fully solar-powered airport. We also plan to implement PV solar projects in different parts of Kerala before expanding to other regions.

Government of India had directed 125 airports run by the Airports Authority of India to generate a minimum of 1 MWp of solar power each by March 2016. What is the progress in this regard? Is CIAL involved?

It is understood that after the firm direction of the Government of India, there has been substantial progress in the implementation of solar projects in many airports in our country. Although CIAL is not directly involved with these projects, many senior AAI officers have visited us and consulted our technical team to firm up technical specifications for inviting bids.

Ministries of Power as well as Environment are bullish about the success of CIAL’s solar initiative, as it can pave the way for other airports and railway stations to become energy neutral. Your comments.

The Union Ministers for Power and Environment have visited our plants and have appreciated CIAL’s efforts. Their visit encouraged us to venture into more challenging assignments.

In fact, we are now working on another unique project — a canal-top PV project on the southern side of the airport, to be installed over a reinforced concrete structure unlike the commonly used steel structure. This enables us to reduce the cost substantially to approx INR 65 million per Megawatt.

We are also working on a carport facility at the airport, to provide solar roof to over 1200 cars in the parking area. This will probably be one of the biggest carports in India. Both these projects are scheduled to be commissioned by December 2016

Indian Institute of Management, Kozhikode had case study of CIAL’s Million Minds Projects under your leadership. Was it easy for you to fight vested interests? How did you inspire confidence in your team?

Challenges while implementing these solar projects were few compared to the obstacles I had to overcome while implementing Cochin Airport project between 1993 and 1999. It was the first Indian airport to be set up under PPP. I had a team of dedicated officers who left no stones unturned to reach their goals. We accomplished our goals through sheer teamwork.

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