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Generating Solar Energy from Advertising Billboards

Mustafa Akolawala’s Zest Enterprise based out of Mumbai was awarded a Guinness World Record for installing the highest number of solar panels on a single advertising billboard.

We spoke with Mustafa Akolawala, founder and CEO of Zest Enterprise, to learn about his unique concept of installing solar panels on advertising billboards, and how this came to achieve a Guiness World Record.

  1. When did you first start working in outdoor advertising and billboards – or Out-of-Home advertising as it is known in the industry?

I started my career as a Chartered Accountant earning a healthy salary. It was in 2010 that I came across an advertising company that was struggling to sell their hoardings. I saw this as an opportunity and began studying about this industry. Without prior experience, I started working on the project and went about pitching the hoardings to potential advertisers.

A brand named Ricoh in Japan responded to my emails and agreed to sign a contract with me for a site at Haji Ali in Mumbai. This was my first successful stint in advertising which gave me the vision of someday owning my own hoardings in Mumbai.

I founded Zest Enterprise in 2014 to realise my ambition of commissioning my own advertisement hoardings. My first project was setting up a large neon billboard of the map of India at a location owned by the Railways. Despite lacking the adequate capital to fund this project, I went ahead because I felt that this was an opportunity not to be missed. 

I was fortunate to get a Qardan Hasana (interest-free loan) from the local Dawoodi Bohra community that helped me fund the design and installation of the billboard, which was at the time one of the largest hoardings in Mumbai. The income generated by that project helped me pay back my dues and gave me the confidence to take further steps into this business.

  1. What inspired you to use solar arrays to power billboards? 

In 2019, my firm won two significant commissions from top advertising companies in Mumbai at premium locations, including the Phoenix Mall at Lower Parel and another near Mulund/Nahur. 

I was continuously thinking about how to break the monotonous pattern of setting up outdoor billboards. Generally, you will find billboards either with a two-side display or a standalone display on the one side with the other side laid bare with iron and steel scaffolds. I  was astonished to learn that the average standalone billboard has 2000 sq. ft of unutilised surface area at the back. So I started thinking about how to optimise this free space. 

At the time, our community masjid in Kandivali, in suburban Mumbai, was having solar panels installed.  That was when it struck me that we could cover the entire free space behind a standalone billboard with solar panels. And if we staggered the positioning of the solar panels, we could install even more. 

I figured that, in a city like Mumbai, where every inch of space is considered valuable, installing solar arrays on the back of advertising hoardings would both sustain the billboard and generate surplus green electricity. I immediately set to work designing the concept. 

  1. What were the initial steps?

We pitched the idea to officials at the Central and Western Railways, who agreed.

We collaborated with IIT Bombay, who helped create three separate teams of 120 engineers to design and build these hoardings. The teams built 17 hoardings with a total surface area of 11,675 sq. ft. accommodating 392 solar panel units. Some of the areas where these billboards were erected included Cuffe Parade, Mahalaxmi race course, Bandra Western Express Highway, Bandra Carter Road, Andheri ROB (Road Over Bridge), Goregaon ROB, Oshiwara Rob and Jogeshwari ROB. 

Billboards have been strategically erected to gain maximum visibility.
Billboards have been strategically erected to gain maximum visibility.
Billboards overlooking Mahalaxmi race course.
Billboards overlooking Mahalaxmi race course.
  1. What obstacles did you face? 

The cost of a solar billboard is three times that of a normal one. In addition to arranging the finances for the project, we were required to acquire rights to position them at strategic locations in order to optimise viewership to help cover the costs and generate revenue.

Secondly, the billboard had to be designed to withstand the weight of the solar panels and the force of wind pressure, something we had never done previously. 

We have had a wonderful team who worked day and night. In addition to IIT Bombay, we have also collaborated with Sardar Patel College of Engineering and some of the best solar engineers in the country. 

  1. How did you go about setting a World Record?

The successful installation of solar-powered billboards gave us the confidence to go for a World Record for installing the highest number of solar panels on a single advertising billboard. We erected a billboard of 60 feet by 40 feet – or 2,400 sq. ft. – with 84 solar panels generating approximately 60,000 units of energy. Each solar panel is 2279 mm by 1134 mm by 35 mm with a capacity of 545 watts. 

We partnered with Hyundai motors, who were excited by the concept.

  1. We learned that the surplus energy produced by the solar panels is being used by the railways. Please can you tell us more about that.

The electricity consumed by the billboard is far less than what we are generating. In fact, 97% of it is surplus! So, we decided to distribute the surplus to the railways by connecting the billboards  to the power grids that supply the railway lines running across Mumbai.

It is a matter of great satisfaction that, in addition to creating advertising revenue, these billboards will continue generating green energy for the railways over the next two decades. 

  1. What was your biggest takeaway from this endeavour?

Some might call it a cliché, but ‘impossible is nothing’. Period. We envisioned it, planned it, worked hard for it and achieved it. 

In the planning stage, I remember facing many sceptics with regards to the cost and practicality of the project. Because we did not have experience in the industry, it was certainly an uphill task. 

However, with many successful projects now behind us, attitudes have begun to change. For example, the Municipal Commissioner of Mumbai has communicated a desire to replicate this concept elsewhere in the city in order to generate green energy for public lighting infrastructure and other social causes. 

If just 31 billboards can have such an environment-friendly impact, then one can only imagine the potential of 3,000 billboards across Mumbai. Hopefully, that reality one day will be my biggest takeaway from this endeavour.

Read about the record here: