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. This 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 metres 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. For environmentally conscious travelers keen to reduce their carbon footprint, it is a welcome development. Some 700,000 passengers pass through its doors each year.
The environmental value of the ambitious project is already evident. Since solar became the airport’s main source of power, the hub has reduced its carbon dioxide emissions by 1,229 tonnes –- the equivalent of 103,934 litres of fuel. The electricity bill has been cut by 40% in the space of a year said airport manager Brenda Voster. Voster says it will take another five to 10 years to pay off the initial 16-million rand ($1.2 million) cost.
In a country with an estimated average of 8.5 hours of sunshine, a day throughout the year, solar’s untapped potential looks huge. After the success in George, the airports in Kimberley — South Africa’s diamond capital — and Upington near the Namibian border have also gone green, with three other regional airports next in line.
George Airport now plans to increase the capacity of the small power station by an extra 250 kW and will soon install batteries capable of conserving energy generated during the day for use at night.