Christchurch Airport is moving ahead with its 150 MW Kōwhai Park solar array to support a revolution in aviation to low-carbon fuel.
Once completed in 2026, Kōwhai Park will be one of Aotearoa-new Zealand’s largest solar arrays, with 300,000 panels on 300 hectares west of the airport.
Christchurch Airport General Manager of Planning and Sustainability Nick Flack says the solar installation will be the basis of an “energy ecosystem” enabling businesses such as hydrogen producers to access renewable solar power.
A joint-venture with Contact Energy and Lightsource bp to install the panels was announced last week.
Mr Flack says Contact, one of New Zealand’s biggest gentailers, brings its experience in managing generation projects in communities and is an established presence in the South Island. Lightsource bp brings specific utility-scale solar expertise as well, having installed about 9 gigawatts of solar globally, he says.
Mr Flack says the willingness of Contact and Lightsource bp to ensure the solar arrays will meet the airport’s safety and design standards was a key factor in the agreement.
“What stuck out for us was how sympathetic both these organisations are to developing something of this nature in a location like this. They are sympathetic to the aeronautical requirements in the area when they design and construct the solar farm.”
Both are experienced in working with communities and stakeholders and also have a “passion for developing generation assets in Canterbury, which was important to us”.
Christchurch Airport chief executive Justin Watson on the land where Kōwhai Park will be developed
While the land is currently poor for grazing, Mr Flack expects some sheep will be used under the arrays to maintain grass height.
“Whether solar panels will make that grazing better will be interesting.”
Airbus’s ZEROe Turbofan is one of three green hydrogen-fuelled plane concepts it wants to develop by 2035. The Turbofan would seat up to 200 passengers and travel more than 2000 nautical miles.
The solar arrays are the first stage of Christchurch Airport’s long-term plan to support the aviation industry's transition to low and zero-carbon fuel alternatives.
Christchurch Airport has also announced its involvement in the Hydrogen Consortium alongside Air New Zealand, Airbus, Fortescue Future Industries, hydrogen infrastructure developer Hiringa Energy, and Christchurch-based liquid hydrogen solution manufacturer Fabrum.
Hydrogen is a frontrunner for fuelling larger aircraft in the future. Producing it on-site is “much more efficient and cost effective”, Mr Flack says.
However, at present, the focus is on developing the capacity for whatever energy sources will be required. By developing the solar farm and substation first, it can “choose how to use that capacity and what the highest and best use is for it” in the future.
The airport’s goal of having Kōwhai Park generating in 2026 aligns with Air New Zealand’s timeframe to run its first trial flights of hydrogen-fuelled aircraft, Mr Flack says.
The solar output will connect to the national grid, via a substation at the airport. The solar arrays could produce enough electricity to power a fifth of Christchurch’s residential electricity use. In practice, Mr Flack expects most of the power to be used by Christchurch Airport, hydrogen production and other businesses operating in Kōwhai Park.
“On day one, we will consume about 10 per cent of the production from solar, and the rest will go to the grid,” Mr Flack says. “As our demand increases and businesses come to our site – whether that be hydrogen or car rental facilities – the proportion of the solar that goes to grid will decline.”
The airport continues to investigate battery storage as well. Mr Flack believes batteries could support electric aeroplanes, such as the 19 seat Heart Aerospace aircraft ordered by Sounds Air.
“They can be trickle charged throughout the day and rapidly discharged to aircraft to keep within turnaround times.”
Christchurch Airport has already slashed its own operational greenhouse gas emissions. It is certified net carbon-zero and is mentoring about 45 other airports globally.
The firm has transitioned key assets, including its light vehicle fleet and heating, away from fossil fuels.
Diagram of the Kōwhai Park development process
Mr Flack says the airport is keen to work with other airports around the country to ensure a coordinated energy transition for airlines.
“We can’t be an island,” he says. “We believe in a network approach.”
However, he notes that many other airports face challenges, including being in low-lying coastal areas, climate change impacts, or not having room for additional infrastructure.
“There are two things – there is having land, and then there is access to national grid infrastructure. We are lucky enough that the Islington substation is 5 kilometres away. It is one of the biggest substations in the South Island and part of the national transmission network.”
He says the fortuitous location is a result of intergenerational planning begun in 1935 when the Christchurch City Council hired surveyor A.R Galbraith to find the best airport location.
“There’s good luck, and there’s good planning,” Mr Flack says. “One thing about the airport is that, from the 1930’s onwards, it has been well-planned.”