Cochin International Airport in southern India has become the world’s first solar powered airport. According to David Nield on Science Alert:
“The airport uses 48,000-50,000 kilowatts of power every day, and the 45 acres of photovoltaic cells installed on the site can now take that strain and then some.”
In the context of the developing Indian economy, there is little not to like since the alternative would have been to operate the airport on India’s mainly coal-based electricity grid. However, the decision to convert the airport to solar power was taken on commercial rather than environmental grounds. It is this that raises concern.
Developed energy grids tend to depend upon the commercial prices paid by large users to maintain and develop the infrastructure. But if a large user – like an airport – decides that going off-grid is more profitable than continuing to pay for grid electricity, then the cost of the grid has to fall on ordinary users. Imagine if Heathrow or Gatwick airport decided to go off-grid – opting for some combination of wind, solar and biofuels coupled to an energy storage system. As the price of renewables continues to fall, and as storage systems develop, such large users may well find that generating their own power is more cost-effective than paying for grid electricity. Were they to do so, other large users would undoubtedly follow suit. Then what?
Many ordinary consumers are already feeling the pinch – which is why the promise to freeze energy prices was one of the few popular Labour Party pledges at last year’s election. Consumer bills are already being front-loaded through price guarantees to companies developing new capacity such as the Hinkley Point C nuclear reactor and the Swansea tidal lagoon. But as large users find that generating their own energy is more cost effective, even more of the investment costs will have to fall on ordinary consumers. Add to this the growing number of more affluent consumers who are deploying rooftop solar systems in order to offset the rising cost of energy, and you have a recipe for an unsustainable electricity grid.
In a developing country like India, this is less of an issue because they are still developing their energy systems. But in countries like the UK that already have a developed Grid built with a 20th century business model that depends upon mass use of cheap (to generate) energy, large-scale private energy generation is truly disruptive and – if not managed properly – has the potential to crash the system.