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Off the grid: Small South African airport runs entirely on solar power

A small town on South Africa’s southern coast just finished construction of the country’s first “green” airport. From its control towers to its escalators, its baggage carousels to its ATMs, the regional airport in George, South Africa, will run exclusively on power supplied by 2,000 solar panels, reports AFP. The panels have the capacity to supply up to 750kW each day, nearly twice the required 400kW. Any excess energy will be transferred to the municipal power grid, with a running clock inside the airport tallying the number of households powered by the system.

With 700,000 annual passengers, George Airport has a small fraction of the traffic at the country’s busiest, O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg. But since its construction in 1977, George Airport has established itself as a shipment hub and through point for golfers heading to the region’s many courses.

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The South African airport is the newest but not the first solar-powered complex of its kind. In 2013, the Cochin International Airport in the southern Indian state of Kerala began supplying part of its demand with green energy generated by solar panels located on top of its terminals. By August 2015, the airport had erected more than 46,000 solar panels on a 45-acre plot on site. That same month, the airport claimed to be generating at least as much energy as it consumed.

Honorable as its sustainable effort seems at first glance, George Airport’s decision to rely on the solar power in a region with somewhat unpredictable weather may raise eyebrows. However, despite sporadic clouds, the airport says it manages to produce energy even on overcast days. More importantly, the airport considers itself an example for similar projects around the region.

“The thinking was if we put (the solar system) in the worst unpredictable weather, it will absolutely work in any other airport in the country,” George Airport’s maintenance director Marclen Stallenberg told AFP.