DOT Sees Promise in Using Solar, LED Lights at Airstrips

July 2, 2010
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RALEIGH – State transportation officials are scouting out general aviation airports in North Carolina from which they will pick one for a pilot project that would introduce enough new solar-power generation to power the facility’s airfield lights.

Depending on how the test goes, such systems could be introduced at other general aviation airports throughout the state, says Richard Walls, director of the Aviation Division of the N.C. Department of Transportation.

“By converting to an LED lighting system, we lower the power consumption to the point where you can have solar energy power the system,” he says.

Walls says the program is in the conceptual stage. NCDOT expects to identify an airport for the test in the next several months. A request for proposals for vendors to supply the system could follow soon after.

The idea for the pilot project came from Walls, an electrical engineer by training. A number of airfields in the state have lights that are near the end of their life cycle. Those lights could be replaced with light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, which use less power than incandescent bulbs. Walls says additional savings could be found by powering the system with solar energy.

Vendors are getting into the business of bringing solar-powered lights to airports. Carmanah Technologies Corp., a Victoria, British Columbia firm, has been providing solar-powered airfield lights for more than five years. Brian O’Flynn, market development manager for Carmanah, says the company offers standalone units that are not wired to an electrical system. Solar panels on the units charge batteries for the lights. Because the system isn’t wired, it can be deployed in places where trenching and installing a wired system would be time-consuming and expensive. The lights have been used in many military applications, O’Flynn says.

Carmanah works with ADB, a Belgian airfield lighting company for customers that want a wired system using solar panels. That’s the kind of system the state prefers. Walls says he considered batteries but was concerned about their ability to reliably charge and hold their charge under all weather conditions. The lights will remain hard wired to the airport’s electrical system. The plan is to build a solar panel system that would produce as much power as the lights consume. “We take power off the grid, we put power back on the grid,” Walls says. “Hopefully, we have net zero.”

Walls could not provide a cost estimate for a solar-powered system. He says it would depend partly on its size – the more lights an airfield has the more solar panels needed to generate power. But he says energy savings from the system would be expected to pay for the system over time. Walls says NCDOT’s Aviation Division will provide some of the initial funding for the project. He hopes others could partner and contribute to the project. Possible partners could include vendors, utilities and the participating airport. Walls says NCDOT intends to sell the renewable energy credits from the system to Progress Energy.

Progress could apply the renewable energy credits toward state-mandated targets that all utilities face for bringing more renewable energy into their portfolios. Progress spokesman Scott Sutton says the utility is unfamiliar with the NCDOT’s pilot project and that the company is not an official partner on the NCDOT’s solar plans at this time.

Airfield lights need to meet standards set by the Federal Aviation Administration.