Back in 2012, when the Kerala State Electricity Board hiked grid tariffs from ₹4 to ₹7 a unit, a large commercial establishment like the Cochin International Airport saw its annual electricity bill almost double to ₹12 crore. The power hike disrupted the business viability plan for India’s first greenfield airport—which started operations in 1999—under the Public-Private Participation (PPP) model. With over 18,000 investors from 30 different countries, Cochin International Airport Ltd (CIAL)—Cochin airport’s parent company—in a bid to lower its power bill, decided to shift towards solar power.

What began as an economic imperative snowballed into a green initiative like no other. In 2015, Cochin airport became the first in the world to be fully powered by solar energy. With an installed solar power capacity of 40 MWp (Megawatts-peak), the airport has achieved cost savings of approximately ₹40 crore per annum and has avoided CO2 emissions of more than 45,000 metric tons. Over the next two decades the airport estimates that it would avoid CO2 emissions of more than 9 lakh metric tons, which it says is equivalent to planting 90 lakh trees or not driving 2,400 million miles!

Sustainability is the need of the hour, and India’s aviation sector is embracing it with open arms. While there have been early adopters like Cochin International Airport, the Covid-19 pandemic has made sure that the pace of adoption is hastened by all stakeholders.

In fact, with the pandemic having ravaged through India’s aviation sector, which is presently in the red, CIAL’s cost savings hold it in good stead. According to aviation research firm CAPA India, Indian Airlines are projected to lose $4.1 billion and airport operators nearly $1 billion in the ongoing fiscal on account of air traffic disruptions due to the pandemic-led lockdown measures.

For fiscal 2021, India’s largest airline, IndiGo, reported a net loss of ₹5,806 crore as against a net profit of ₹233 crore in the previous fiscal. InterGlobe Aviation, which runs the airline IndiGo, says its quarterly net loss jumped to a high of ₹1,147 crore in the January to March quarter from ₹871 crore a year earlier as the second wave of Covid-19 infections battered demand. The on ground situation could worsen given the buzz around a possible third wave of infections. CAPA India expects domestic and international air travel to rebound to the pre-Covid-19 levels only by the third quarter of fiscal 2023 and by the end of fiscal 2024, respectively.

So far, all stakeholders in the aviation industry admit that the sudden onset of the pandemic in early 2020 accentuated the need for better efficiencies, including reducing the impact on the environment. Their thought process was simple: bringing in sustainability will increase viability for airlines and airports in a hostile aviation industry. “The pandemic presented multifarious challenges for the aviation industry, while also bringing attention to climate change. There is a dire need to take sustainability in our stride,” says Christoph Schnellmann, CEO, Yamuna International Airport Private Limited, the company that is building the greenfield Noida International Airport. “Sustainable operations are not only good for the environment but they also enable higher efficiency, including cost and time savings,” he adds.

But what comes first? Does sustainability lead to efficiency or do efficient operations fund sustainable equipment and practices? Ronojoy Dutta, Wholetime Director and CEO, Inter-Globe Aviation, is curious whether this is a classic chicken and egg story. At IndiGo, though, he says, the answer is that sustainability brings efficiency, which generates ROI (return on investment) on the investment over a period of time. “If we are looking at reaping the benefits of tech-enabled sustainable practices three to five years down the line, we need to start now,” says Dutta, emphasising that the airline has leveraged time and resources in the last year to become “leaner” and “cleaner”. On an ongoing basis, the airline has been investing in a new, more energy efficient aircraft fleet, replacing its older generation of Airbus 320 CEOs with NEO aircraft, which will reduce fuel burn by 15%.

CIAL’S entry into the solar power sector was in March 2013 with a 100 KWp (Kilowatts-peak) solar plant on the rooftop of the airport’s international arrival block. Eight months later it commissioned a bigger project of 1 MWp capacity, at a cost of ₹7 crore. Seeing the benefits, in the subsequent years, the airport increased its renewable power capacity with an aim to produce its entire power requirement through solar energy and insulate itself from spiralling energy costs. In January this year, it commissioned a 452 KWp floating solar power plant taking its total installed capacity to 40 MWp. The airport produces 1.6 lakh units of clean energy a day, while its daily consumption stands at around 1.3 lakh units.

“CIAL has been reinventing itself since its formative days. One of our innovations—which proved that relying upon green energy is possible even for the high energy consumers like an airport—has won us the Champions of the Earth award from the United Nations,” V.J.Kurian, founder managing director, CIAL said in January this year. Now, CIAL’s aim is to become the second largest power producer in the state after the Kerala State Electricity Board.

Over 500 kilometres north of Cochin International Airport, the Kempegowda International Airport (KIA), in Bengaluru achieved its energy neutrality goal last fiscal. Nearly 100% of its energy needs now are from renewable sources through onsite and offsite power purchase agreements. Operated by Bangalore International Airport Limited (BIAL), KIA’s onsite renewable power sources include, a 503 kilowatt solar installation at rooftops of utility buildings, 440 kilowatt solar installation at the car park area, 2,500 kilowatt ground-mounted solar installation at the airside, and 3,350 kilowatt solar installation at rooftops of the cargo buildings and other office premises. Put together these solar installations generate 10 million units of power per annum. In addition, the airport purchases 40 million units of solar power and 20 million units of wind power per annum from the open market. According to BIAL, it achieved 22 lakh units of energy savings in FY21, enough to power nearly 9,000 houses per month.

“Despite the pandemic, BIAL continued to drive its sustainability initiatives to establish innovative methods for ecological sustainability and also transform BLR Airport (KIA) into a model airport,” a spokesperson of BIAL told Fortune India. KIA says it also conserves more water than it consumes, thereby lowering its dependence on municipal water supplies in a city that’s plagued with water problems. At Cochin International Airport, however, organic farming of vegetables has come to be a by-product of its solar power generation. Vegetable cultivation at the airport’s 14.4 MW solar power plant was started during June 20I6 in a small area of approximately three acres. The total harvest was approximately 30 tonnes of vegetables in one year.

India's newer airports, too, are talking shop about sustainable development. The upcoming Noida International Airport (NIA), which is being built at an initial cost of ₹5,700 crore, has a zero emission philosophy. According to the airport’s CEO Schnellmann, there are plans afoot to implement technologies and processes like zero-emission fuels and electricity, waste and waste-water management and environmental management systems to realise this goal. “We would like NIA to be a role model for sustainable infrastructure and operations in the country,” he says. Even airlines are doing their bit.

IndiGo’s Dutta says that one of the successful projects implemented by the airline was the automation of ground support equipment, which reduced carbon emissions by almost 5%. The airline, adds Dutta, adopted various innovative solutions in both passenger and freight services like using a 10-ton electrical tug instead of a 20-ton battery-operated baggage freight loader, portable baggage transfer belt, implementation of vehicle-mounted transfer rollers, and ran trials of electric passenger coaches. These initiatives not only reduced man-hours per flight by 90 minutes, but also brought in cost savings of over ₹15 crore. “This is a testament to the fact that investment in sustainable operations [can prove to be] cost efficient over a period of time,” says Dutta.

IndiGo also ran pilot flights ascertaining the feasibility of using biofuels, which not only reduce costs but also emissions. In August 2018, IndiGo’s smaller rival SpiceJet operated India’s first test flight from Dehradun to New Delhi that was partially powered by biojet fuel made from the Jatropha plant. The fuel was prepared by the CSIR-Indian Institute of Petroleum (IIP), Dehradun. According to a recent article published by the World Economic Forum, Sustainable Aviation Fuel or SAF, which is made from waste and agricultural by-products or power-to-liquid based on hydrogen technology can be 100% less carbon-intensive than traditional jet fuel over its lifecycle. “Early adoption of SAF can provide environmental and economic benefits at 10 times higher than initial costs as India’s aviation sector grows, while progressing on global climate goals,” says the article. India, it added, “was well positioned to become a leader in a rapidly growing global SAF industry, given access to feedstock and low-cost solar energy.”

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