George Airport is Africa’s first and the world’s second airport to be powered by solar energy, with the ultimate aim of being a wholly sustainable enterprise and obtaining accreditation from the Green Building Council South Africa (GBCSA).

WORDS Francini van Staden PHOTOGRAPHS Melanie Maré

There is a sense of urgency in final boarding calls. For ‘destination green’ and sustainability, it’s no different. Electricity price hikes and supply insecurity, carbon tax, water scarcity and environmental legislation are all causing increasing tension at the boarding gate.

While increased consumer demand is favourable for business, resource limitations are challenging and have yet to be provided for. The Airports Company of South Africa (ACSA) has taken a leading role in green business, leaving business as usual – with its unsustainable core – behind. The launch in February of the solar plant may have placed George Airport on the world’s green map but airport general manager Brenda Vorster says this is only the first leg of the journey to ‘destination green’.

Going solar
George Airport is ACSA’s pilot project for clean and renewable energy generation. Over 3000 embedded fixed photovoltaic (PV) solar panels are generating 42% of the airport’s electricity needs. At current peak capacity, the 750kW solar energy plant generates more electricity than what the airport uses, and storing this energy is a critical element currently being researched for future improvement.

The solar plant has already been so successful in its short operational period that ACSA is looking at expanding and using improved technologies, such as thin film alternative technology. This technology generates electricity in response to daylight, irrespective of sunlight hours, which is ideal for an all-year rainfall area such as George. ACSA chief engineer Cornelius du Plessis says they are investigating a battery component to store energy in order to benefit fully. Expanding the solar plant and storing energy could reduce the airport’s dependence on municipal electricity supply even further, and feeding excess energy back to the George Municipality grid could also be possible.

It’s debatable whether there is anything that is entirely green or sustainable in our energy-driven and intricately connected world. For solar energy, the most notable environmental risks include greenhouse gas emissions from solar panel manufacturing and the need for rare and expensive materials in some technology alternatives. Yet, solar energy is more acceptable because of its low carbon emission levels and pollution compared to other energy generation methods.

ACSA’s underlying and larger environmental philosophy supports its decision for renewable and self-sustaining energy. By switching to solar, the airport’s coal-powered energy consumption has been reduced, which indirectly reduces the airport’s water footprint. By switching to renewable solar energy, “the plant is reliably expected to save 1.2 million litres of water per annum”, Transport Minister Dipuo Peters said at the official launch of the plant. Although a first for South Africa and Africa, ACSA has more ambitious sustainability and green strategies to address a wide range of the aviation industry’s environmental impacts, both on and off the ground.

Airport environmental management
Several green plans are sprouting at the George Airport, some of which could easily be overlooked by the average traveller passing through. “Green is a philosophy, both personally and for the airport,” says Brenda. “We’ve adopted a cradle-to-grave waste management approach. The George Airport takes responsibility for the correct handling and green management of waste until it is separated, recycled or disposed of according to environmental principles.” All waste, from that generated on the aircraft to general operations, is taken to a designated on-site waste management location, where staff manually separate it into waste streams. “A service provider is responsible for waste removal according to our identified waste stream management principles. There is some community benefit from recyclable waste and the airport restaurants have shown an interest in becoming involved in waste management as well,” says Brenda.

Fauna and flora
Landscaping at the airport is indigenous, creating a micro-ecology that responds to the local climate and environment. However, the airport has not escaped one of the Garden Route’s grappling environmental challenges – invasive alien species. “Control and maintenance is regularly required, for which we rely on our alien clearing programme and team,” says Brenda. “About 47 hectares still require regular alien vegetation maintenance. It is also critical for airport operational safety that these alien trees do not exceed a certain height.”

Two permanent wildlife officers monitor and manage fauna and bird activities at the airport day and night, according to ACSA’s adopted wildlife management programme. Snakes, rodents and porcupines are caught and released off-site. “We also have several bird species at the airport, including lapwing, guinea fowl, hadida and black-headed heron, with lapwing being the more frequent visitor. We are currently obtaining laser lights that the officers can use to discourage birds from the runway at night – without catching or harming the birds,” says Brenda.

Re-purposing derelict aircraft
“No, it’s not merely a derelict aircraft,” says Brenda, referring to what many locals believe is a grounded aircraft on the outskirts of the airport, now corroding away. “Our fire fighters require very specific training in how to mechanically cut an aircraft in case of an emergency, or how to avoid aircraft fuel or other potentially hazardous materials from igniting,” says Brenda. “How to safely release passengers and crew from an aircraft in an emergency is entirely different from vehicles, hence the old aircraft serves a much needed purpose of safety training.”

Bigger purpose, bigger picture
According to ACSA chairperson Skhumbuzo Macozoma, reaching the company’s introspective environmental goals balances on a number of key drivers: energy and water consumption; waste recycling; noise impact management; and a conscious environmental approach to materials used. Brenda says it is not merely about improved financial performance. “We are part of a community that is environmentally conscious. For an operation of scale such as the George Airport to switch to renewable and clean energy as part of its broader environmental vision, boosting green initiatives is on a much greater scale and timeframe. Yes, cost savings are an added bonus, but it is definitely not the foremost driver. Our driver is responsibility. How each of us individually, but also collectively, needs to take accountability for our resource consumption.”

ACSA’s next step will be to roll out an extensive green procurement programme, expanding its green operations to airport stakeholders. It will implement processes to ensure all its suppliers have developed and adopted green management and resource saving alternatives. “We have no expectations for this deep rooted journey to be completed overnight. It will take time but we are very sure that green is the way to go,” says Brenda.

Future recognition
George Airport is one of South Africa’s smaller yet busier airports. “In March alone, we had more than 35 000 people departing from the airport. With this number of people moving through the airport, we have a valuable opportunity to inform consumers of our green journey,” says Brenda. One outcome of ACSA’s sustainability and green focus is to seek accreditation from the GBCSA.

With the successful operation of its solar energy plant and by introspectively considering its environmental footprint, George Airport is leading a journey that will take ACSA well beyond the green grass of home as it rolls out its green programme to other airports in future.