Jorge Rosillo is the driving force behind one of the more impressive sustainability projects in the industry: the Galápagos Ecological Airport. For our story, he tells us about the obstacles he faced, his views on sustainable energy, and what others can learn from his experience.
Jorge Rosillo is full of energy. He is eager to talk about the Ecological Airport, his work and his ideas openly and honestly. And he is busy: during our interview, his smartphone constantly produced a string of new sounds. But as the adage goes: “If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it” – and Rosillo is the kind of person who gets things done. Like building a cutting-edge airport on a remote island.
The Galápagos Ecological Airport came into being in 2007 and was intended to be among the most sustainable airports in the world. An airport that sets new standards in a very challenging environment.
“Too many obstacles, way too many,” a chuckling Rosillo describes the situation back in 2007 when they started the project. To get it going, he and the team had to make the rounds, convincing people. “Corporación América had been active in Ecuador for some time, but this was something completely new,” Rosillo tells us. Although the idea was a fruit of the collaboration between the Ecuadorian government and Corporación América, the team needed lots of patience to convince enough people of the project to get it going. “This is to be expected if you tell people: we don’t have many ships, no fresh water, very difficult logistics – let’s try a new airport concept on a remote island!”, Rosillo recalls.
We don’t have many ships, no fresh water, very difficult logistics – let’s try a new airport concept on a remote island!
Then the real challenge began. Where do you get workers familiar with new technology such as renewable energy? Where do you house them? And how do you organize logistics to bring all the raw material? “Keep in mind that an airport has to fulfill international standards,” Rosillo points out, “which means, for example, to guarantee that the power won’t go out when there’s neither wind or sun or to comply with regulations about raw material. We had to come up with new solutions constantly.” It seems that all the hard work paid off: the Galápagos airport is widely considered a lighthouse project when it comes to airport sustainability.
Galápagos Ecological Airport
The airport was planned, built and is operated by Corporación América. It is the first airport that was awarded by the US Green Building Council with the LEED GOLD certification. Among the reasons:
- Recovery of affected areas and reforestation of endemic flora
- Reduction of energy consumption and the production of clean energy
- Natural lighting and ventilation in all areas of the airport
- Reduction of water consumption, water treatment and reuse
- Reuse of more than 80% of the material from the old airport
- 100% powered by renewable energy (solar and wind), 35% generated by photovoltaic panels installed on the terminal walkways and the remaining 65% by windmills strategically located in the airport area
How Far Can Sustainability Go?
Despite his success in meeting very ambitious sustainability goals – or maybe because of it –, Jorge Rosillo is thinking about the limits of sustainability and potential conflicts. “Sustainability here in Galápagos has many facets: the behavior of the animals, the ecosystem surrounding us, preservation of wildlife and so on,” he muses and asks: “How much growth is okay?” After all, the airport’s operation has expanded and now includes logistics for cruise ships and hotels, for example. There is also the question of whether there is such a thing as genuinely sustainable energy production.
“At the end of the day, all methods of energy production affect the environment,” Rosillo remarks. For solar farms, you need to convert land, wind turbines can negatively affect the landscape, and bio fuel needs agricultural products that otherwise could be used for food, as he explains. “That’s why for us, the key is to reduce energy consumption,” Rosillo describes his approach, which brings its own challenges: “This isn’t easy, because we all love our comfort. We like it cool in summer. We like bright lights. People don’t like giving up comfort.”
If we save energy, we save money.
On a positive note, Rosillo is thrilled about the technological development he has witnessed since the start of the Ecological Airport project: “When we started, technology such as solar panels was costly. This has changed so that now others who want to build new airports similar to Galápagos can do so much cheaper.” Another important lesson he learned is that economic pressure can actually work in favor of sustainability. “If we save energy, we save money,” Rosillo describes the situation. “That’s why we constantly work on our procedures to become more profitable while minimizing the waste of energy.”
You can tell that the manager would very much like to see similar projects all over the world. He is proud that the airport has shown how things can be done and he hopes that others will profit from the lessons learned.
A Community Effort
The many challenges the team faced when building the airport, but also meeting its sustainability goals, could only be overcome by working together with various stakeholders. Government and private sector worked closely together, as Jorge Rosillo explains. Asked about his secret of success, he laughs: “You need to be persistent, persistent, persistent.”
Communication is important. You have to take care not only of the trees and bees, but also of the people.
As for sustainability, in an interview with airport carbon accreditation, he warns about the danger of creating a sustainability silo within the organization. Instead, in his view, “the environmental culture has to be developed across the board of the entire company. Every employee has to work in line with the administration’s environmental strategy. It doesn’t matter if they work for the marketing or commercial department of the airport. All these different departments have to be involved and evaluated for their environmental efforts.”
This also shows that persistence and leadership go hand in hand with a community-based approach. “Sometimes, you need to push things to inspire an environmental culture,” Rosillo has to say about leadership. “Sometimes, you have to be strict, and you have to convince people. You have to make people think that things need to be different.” On the other hand, this can’t be a one-way street: “You need to answer questions. It’s a lot about communication. Not everybody thinks the way you do. When it comes to sustainability, you have to take care not only of the trees and bees, but also of the people.”
However he is doing it, it seems to work. Corporación América is planning a second airport based on the Galápagos model. Jorge Rosillo and team apparently don’t have to convince so many people anymore: success speaks for itself, and walking off the beaten tracks is clearly paying off. Will others follow?