At first glance, there’s nothing out of the ordinary about the regional airport in George, a town of just 1,50,000 residents on South Africa’s south coast. In fact though, the small site is Africa’s first “green” airport to be powered by the sun. The control tower, escalators, check-in desks, baggage carousels, restaurants and ATMs — every service here depends on a small solar power station, located a few hundred kilometres away in a field of dandelions next to a runway. Its 2,000 solar panels produce up to 750 kW every day, easily surpassing the 400 kW needed to run the airport. The excess is fed back into the municipal power grid, and a computer screen in the terminal informs passengers: “Within this month [September], 274 households were supplied through this system with green electricity.”
For environmentally-conscious travellers keen to reduce their carbon footprint, it’s a welcome development. “Planes have such a big carbon print,” said passenger Brent Petersen, 33, in George. “If we compensate, that’s cool.” George Airport was originally built in apartheid-era South Africa in 1977 to make getting home easier for PW Botha, a government minister at the time and later president. It now serves as a transit hub for shipments of home-grown flowers and oysters, as well as golfers visiting one of the region’s many courses. Some 7,00,000 passengers pass through its doors each year.
Second after Kochi
The solar plant, launched in September 2015, is the second solar-run airport in the world after Cochin International Airport at Nedumbassery. Nestled between the Indian Ocean on one side and the majestic Outeniqua Mountains on the other, George was a surprising location for the first attempt at a solar-powered airport in South Africa.
The town’s weather is unpredictable: in the space of half an hour, the temperature can plummet by 10 degrees celsius, the blue skies quickly replaced by a steady drizzle. However, so far, it’s been so good: even on overcast days, the plant still produces some power. At night or when necessary, the system automatically switches over to the traditional power grid.