Efficient Lighting Takes Off at California Airports

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Even the most energy-intensive business can find ways to save energy, cut costs and improve its sustainability. Take Truckee-Tahoe Airport and Naval Air Station North Island for example. Both facilities implemented energy-efficient lighting projects in 2003 with different goals and different technologies, but with the same end result: more efficient operations.

NAS North Island in San Diego, replaced existing incandescent taxiway, heliport and obstruction lights with LED lights. "The goal of the project was energy and maintenance savings," said Base Energy Manager Mike Magee. "LEDs use less energy and last much longer than conventional lamps."

For Truckee-Tahoe, a small civil airport on the northern California-Nevada border, the goal was to install its first taxiway lighting. "We only had reflective markers on the taxiway at the time," recalled General Manager Dave Gotschall.

Carmanah Model 601 taxiway edge lights awaiting installation at Truckee-Tahoe International Airport.
Carmanah Model 601 taxiway edge lights awaiting installation at Truckee-Tahoe International Airport. (Photo by Phred Stoner, Truckee-Tahoe International Airport, courtesy of Carmanah Technologies)

Solar Offers Lower-Cost, Easy Installation

The cost of installing the lights, including running electricity out to the area, was estimated at $1.2 million. Gotschall hoped to fund the project with an Airport Capital Improvement Program grant from the Federal Aviation Administration. Because of the size of the expenditure, however, the FAA wanted to break it into a two-year project. "That meant we'd be out there on the taxiway, digging trenches and disrupting operations for two years," said Gotschall.

A trip to the Association of California Airports conference changed that grim forecast. Gotschall visited the Carmanah Technologies booth at the conference and discovered an efficient and inexpensive solution. The Canada-based solar light manufacturer had developed a system for the U.S. Coast Guard to light buoys.

Gotschall learned that 560 solar taxiway lights could be installed for $135,000, the airport's matching portion for the FAA grant. "The cost of civil engineering and extending power line really drove up the price tag," said the general manager.

Further homework revealed that solar lights could save the airport an additional $15,000 annually in maintenance costs. The one drawback was that the lights carried only a five-year guarantee, although the manufacturer says that they may last up to eight years. Because of the original application, the battery-operated units are completely encased, so none of the parts can be replaced. Carmanah is currently working on a system with replaceable batteries.

The equipment's relatively short lifespan seemed like an acceptable tradeoff to the airport board, however. Gotschall got approval to install the solar lights, and Truckee-Reno Airport became the first civil airport in the country to install solar taxiway lights. In the two years since the installation, "The lights have worked great," he declared.

Truckee-Reno did not receive any FAA funding for the installation because the lights hadn't been certified for use in commercial airports. "We don't serve commercial airlines, so it wasn't a problem," Gottschall said.

Utility Contract Funds Navy Project

Solar-powered lights have been used by the military to set up airstrips in Iraq, Magee noted, but they were not appropriate for NAS North Island. "We already had the electrical infrastructure in place," he explained.

The base's resource efficiency manager worked with Naval Facilities Engineering Command Southwest to develop the retrofit project. Project financing and execution for the upgrade came from a utility energy services contract the Navy had with San Diego Gas and Electric Company.

The project cost $327,800, and saves the base an estimated 222,850 kWh annually. The initial simple payback was calculated to be 3.8 years, but Magee said that subsequent airfield LED projects have been more like six to eight years, even counting maintenance savings. "A lot depends on assumptions used in the analysis," he pointed out, adding, "Private sector contracts may be even more cost effective."

Efficiency Measures Attract Attention

Even with the longer-than-expected payback time, lighting is still one of the most cost-efficient strategies for saving energy that any business can make, according to Scott Terrell, planning director for Truckee-Donner Public Utility District. "And solar lights are particularly affordable compared to running electricity around a large area like a taxiway," he noted.

The utility worked with Truckee-Tahoe on upgrading lighting in airport buildings, but can't take credit for the solar taxiway lights, Terrell said. "Maybe we helped to get them thinking about energy-efficient lighting, though."

Truckee-Tahoe and NAS North Island are helping others to think about energy-efficient facilities. The base received the Secretary of the Navy Energy Award in 2004 for a variety of measures including the LED retrofit. Truckee-Tahoe earned a Flex Your Power award for installing the solar lights, and PBS did a documentary on the system.

Airports offer more opportunities, not just for efficiency, but for renewable energy, too, observed Gotschall. "You have hangars with big, flat roofs located in open spaces, so it's potentially a good site for solar panels."

He said he would consider installing more PV at Truckee-Tahoe if he could find equipment that worked in the region's harsh winter conditions. "The technology and economics are getting better all the time," Gotschall said. "If it pencils out, why not give it a try?"