The ‘Green’ Light For Airfield Ops

Southampton Airport, UK, has solar-powered Runway Guard Lights supplied by Systems Interface Ltd, UK. (Systems Interface)

Tom Allett reports on solar-powered airfield lighting applications at Southampton Airport, UK.

Southampton Airport, UK, has solar-powered Runway Guard Lights supplied by Systems Interface Ltd, UK. (Systems Interface)

We live in an age where environmental considerations and sustainability are everyday occurrences at home and at work.  As the aviation industry has – and continues to receive – heavy criticism about the emissions it creates, the desire for all projects to have a ‘green’ angle has never been stronger.
Sunshine, we hope, will be a readily-available source of power for a few billion years yet to come though; living in England though, I’m well aware that not all areas of the globe receive their fair share of it!  Nevertheless, despite the perceived lack of sunshine ‘over here’ solar powered-projects are becoming increasingly popular.
The reality in this industry is that a product’s purchase and operational costs outweigh its environmental credentials.  As the CEO of one well-known airfield lighting company told me: “your product can be as ‘green’ as you like, but if you are 10% dearer than the competition, you’re not going to win the contract.”
Having quoted that example to several of his competitors, I found that they agreed with him unanimously.  It’s not exactly surprising in the current financial crisis, but as increasingly stringent environmental regulations are introduced in some parts of the world, I can foresee the day when airports will be legally required to have some aspect of their lighting systems powered by the sun.
 
Case study
A UK regional that has fully embraced solar-powered lighting is BAA-owned Southampton Airport on the south coast.
Steve Thurston, the airport’s Head of Planning and Development, told Airports International that in 2009, as the time came for some of the airfield lighting to be replaced, he heard that several airports in North America that had a similar climate to Southampton’s were using solar-powered LED lights known as Northern models.
Along with the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) Southampton set up an operational trial using a single Northern Model Runway Guard Light (RGL) – designed for 24-hour operation – that was successfully completed during the winter of 2009/10.
Three key factors – brightness, reliability and ease of maintenance – were tested.
Mr Thurston said that the weather during the test period was particularly bad; even by UK winter standards and this “really put the lights to the test”.
He added: “We experienced no degradation [in lighting], even during the short winter days, and they were 100% reliable.”
Mr Thurston said he was very pleased with the lights because their design was very sturdy.  And an added bonus is that because they are raised up on concrete bases, it is easy to cut the grass around them and they do not become obstructed by the type of snowfall that the UK normally experiences.
With the trial complete, five lights were purchased and installed on access roads around the runway.  “These included some that were located where there is no access to electricity supplies, which obviously helped us to choose to buy solar technology.”
Designed for round-the-clock operations, Mr Thurston said the lights require little maintenance and use the sun’s energy, collected by their solar panels, to charge their replaceable batteries that have an average lifespan of five to seven years.
They are built to store enough energy to power the light for up to 120 days, even without any further solar charging.  The lights are still operating as expected and their success prompted Southampton’s management team for find other areas where solar lighting could be used and, indeed, a sixth solar RGL is already on order and much of the terminal and car park lighting has been changed to LED fittings.
Mr Thurston estimates that not having to lay down power cables to the more remote parts of the airport saved over £170,000  in installation expenses and added that the cost savings continue because of the batteries’ longevity.
Since the introduction of the solar-powered RGLs, Southampton has started a project to install energy-efficient LED lights on all 14 of its aircraft parking stands.
Mr Thurston states that his experiences with solar and LED lighting have been “entirely positive” and adds that the airport has passed on its results to the rest of the industry.