Kochi: An Airport With Green Energy and a Reluctant Hero at Its Helm

The Cochin International Airport had been a torchbearer from its inception on many accounts including the solar power project which prompted many other airports to move the solar way.

Kochi: One of the busiest airports in India in terms of international traffic, Cochin International Airport Limited (CIAL) is running fully on solar energy. The solar project pioneered by managing director Vattavayalil Joseph Kurian has won it the Champions of the Earth Award of the United Nations in the Entrepreneurial Vision category.

The Cochin International Airport grabbed global attention during the devastating Kerala floods, as it had to be shut down for 15 days in a row. Less than a month after, it has hit the headlines, but all for the right reasons, when it bagged the coveted UN environment award for Entrepreneurial Vision.

Also read: Kerala Rains: Kochi Airport Shut Till Saturday; 12 Districts on Red Alert

“Cochin is showing the world that our ever-expanding network of global movement doesn’t have to harm the environment. As the pace of society continues to increase, the world’s first fully solar-powered airport is proof positive that green business is good business,” observes the media release by the United Nations Environment Programme.

The significance of this recognition doubles, given that the Airport, a green field project which had been at the receiving end of severe criticism from environmental activists for filling up acres of agriculture land.

“These days, most of the airports in the world look similar – with more or less similar architecture, facilities and structures. But some airports stand apart. My favorite one is Changi airport in Singapore. In India, Kochi airport stands out – as it has a distinct flavour. The architecture is different from the usual airport authority of India types – and it also an airport with a character. One can sense the efficiency of the management. The new terminal in Kochi is of international standard. The solar panels which an alternative source of energy also make it a distinctive airport,” says John Samuel, president, Institute of Sustainable Development and Governance, Trivandrum who is a frequent flyer across the globe.

The CIAL had been a torchbearer from its inception on many accounts including the solar power project which prompted many other airports to move the solar way. Indira Gandhi International Airport of Delhi which took early cue from the Kerala experiment has now installed with 2.14 MW plant. Bangalore and Kolkata airports are also going the solar way on a bigger scale. The Airport Authority of India which is in charge of over 125 airports in the country, has been planning to build solar power plants at 30 airports.

“During 2013, the state electricity board which was providing us with power, drastically increased our power tariff and the huge expenditure of power prompted us to explore new ideas. We started off with a pilot solar power plant, with just 400 solar panels on the rooftop of the terminal building, during 2013. Soon after, we went on to enhance our solar capacity to 13 MW, and since August 2015, we are running our airport completely with the cleanest energy, available on earth. With net-metering, we are able to export the excess power produced during daytime, into the utility grid, and to withdraw, during the time when solar power is not available. Since becoming a fully solar powered airport in August 2015, we have come a long way, says CIAL MD Kurian.

CIAL is, in fact, the brain child of Kurian, a 1983 batch IAS officer hailing from Pala of Kottayam district of Kerala. When the idea of building a green field airport in Cochin was conceived way back in 1992-93, the government of Kerala appointed Kurian, who was the district collector of Ernakulam, as its managing director, to take the project ahead. Twenty five years down the line Kurian, for the Airport, has become nothing less than what Varghese Kurian was for Amul or E. Sreedharan for the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation.

“It was an idea that originated in 1992. I took this idea to the then chief minister K. Karunakaran who gave an instant approval for it. It was too funny an idea if I were to look back. If I am asked, whether I would do it again, certainly, I will say no, because I think I was mad at that point of time, or maybe I knew nothing about the consequences of building an airport from nothing. We started with only Rs 20,000 in hand and went on to build this Rs 30 million project. I have been a lucky man at the right time and right place,” says a humble Kurian.

“I was a district collector here then with only nine-and-a-half years of experience in civil service. People tended to ask how the project was going to fail, very typical of Kerala. The major task was to convince these people, who strongly believed that nothing would happen here. We were talking about something totally new bringing in the government, airport users and the airport service providers on a common platform. Trying to raise money by the concept PPP had not been tried out anywhere in the world at that point of time,” he went on to add.

Materialising the idea of building an airport with public-private partnership, with more than 19,000 shareholders by acquiring 1,300 acres of land from 3,600 land owners, and rehabilitating 820 families, was not a cake walk. Kurian and his team accomplished the project in six years whereas the newest Airport in Kerala, Kannur, has already taken two decades to materialise.

The CIAL, which effectively gifted Kochi its ability to metamorphose into a metro city, is often credited to late congress leader K. Karunakaran, who had been the chief minister during that period. While acknowledging the bold steps taken by him as the chief minister, Kurian believes that he had the backing of all the leaders cutting across the party lines: “No political leader dissuades you from doing anything good, as long as your path is clear and intentions are good.”

This is his third stint as the MD of CIAL. He had been relieved from duties soon after the airport became operational in 1999. In 2003, he was recalled when there was a financial crisis. He left the airport in 2006 only to come back again in 2011.

From just 400 solar panels in 2013, the CIAL now has more than 100,000 solar panels, installed in different locations, providing roof to more than 1,400 cars. The Airport has optimally utilised the air space over a 2-km long canal within the Airport, by installing more than 20,000 solar panels. All these plants together generate approximately 120,000 units of green power every day, which is more than the present daily requirement of the Airport.

“We have always tried to be inclusive, innovative and experimental. Starting in 1999, by establishing the first green field Airport in India under PPP. And now, we have reached an enviable position, when the world’s highest environmental recognition is being awarded to us,” says the MD.

According to the Kurian, the CIAL management is not comfortable sitting on past laurels, they continue to take up new challenges. “We are already working with airports in other countries, for example Ghana, where we have set up an agreement to assist in installing solar-powered facilities in three airports across the country.”

Rajeev Ramachandran is an independent journalist based in Kochi.

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