Another plane full of visitors touches down at Piarco International airport on the island of Trinidad. They are a mixed bunch - tourists here to enjoy white sandy beaches and clear blue seas, along with workers from the oil and gas industry.
More than 2.5 million passengers use Piarco International each year, though it is unlikely many of them give much thought to the huge amount of electricity even a small airport needs to keep running. As the plane taxis to its allotted gate, passengers may catch a glimpse of several large arrays of solar panels around the airport - signs that a renewable energy revolution is underway.
“The cost of energy is a big issue for most small island developing states (SIDS),” says Jane Hulpe, Deputy Director of Environment at the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). “So there is a big economic as well as environmental benefit if you can cut aviation emissions. We know a lot about the economics of airlines and big airports, but we don’t know so much about the small airports like those you often find on SIDS. Energy accounts for a high proportion of their costs, so anything we can do to help with that has got to be a good thing.”
The ICAO’s ‘Solar at Gate’ (SAG) project aims to reduce carbon emissions from fossil-fuel power generation by using solar energy for the air conditioning and other services a plane uses while it is at the airport gate - typically around one hour for domestic and two hours for international flights. SAG significantly reduces carbon dioxide emissions from aircraft parked at the gate, which currently use auxiliary power units (APUs) powered by jet fuel or airport ground power units (GPUs) fuelled by diesel to run on-board systems and cooling before departing for their next flight.
SAG was first piloted at Jamaica’s Norman Manley international airport, followed by airports at Mombassa in Kenya and Douala in Cameroon. Now, as part of a €4 million European Union-project - funded through the Global Climate Change Alliance Plus (GCCA+) initiative - to help Trinidad and Tobago reach its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), Piarco International has been chosen for SAG after an intensive feasibility and consultation process.
“When you do a project to reduce CO2 it’s important that the methodology is harmonised and comparable, so you can nail down the lessons learned and replicate it easily elsewhere,” says Jane Hulpe. “We have come up with a methodology which easily shows the emissions reductions, so people now understand how much it will cost, what the benefits are and what it takes to get the SAG done - it’s not difficult. They say ‘Oh, it’s really good, this can really help us!’ ”
“The whole point of doing pilot projects is to learn, to create a methodology which can then be rolled out easily at other airports around the world. The SAG at Piarco International is a great illustration of this - we carried out an assessment which showed that renewable energy was possible and could be done by replicating the original pilot. It’s great news that they are going ahead.”
SAG may sound simple, but it’s not just a question of installing solar panels and hooking them up to the gate. Safety factors are a priority, such as eliminating glare from the panels which could dazzle cockpit crew as they take off or land. There also has to be a clear cost benefit - which in Piarco’s case was obvious, as the airport currently consumes around 20,000 megawatts of electricity each year. “We’re also talking to SIDS in Asia and the Pacific about SAG,” she says. “The more projects we do, the cheaper it becomes - the cost has halved in two years and the area needed for the solar panels is half what it was. We’re getting better all the time.”
The benefits of SAG go beyond simply cutting costs and emissions. It encourages investment in the local economy, enables a country to diversify its energy sources and enables the government to make a practical demonstration of its commitment to tackling climate change. And, says Jane Hulpe, there are benefits for airport works as well.
“It’s about the people,” she says. “It’s very nice to do all the planning, but when I see the project concretely on site it really gives me a lot of satisfaction. It’s about capacity building, knowing that the staff in each country are well prepared to continue the work after you’ve gone. I get great satisfaction when the local staff assume the project as their own - when I leave, they are ready to go.”