The Pros, Cons of Solar, Wind

The FAA Tech Center’s Jim Patterson gives an update on the pros and cons of solar, wind technology.


ARLINGTON, VA — During a meeting of regulators, airports, and consultants held here in July, Federal Aviation Administration airport safety specialist Jim Patterson, Jr. shared what his team at the agency’s Hughes Technical Center have learned during a six-year investigation into alternative energies. While much has happened with solar research, he relates, battery storage remains an issue. With wind turbines, size and noise, and the subsequent interference with radar, are issues. Speaking to planners here, Patterson explains that solar and wind have a place at airports, and a place in long-term master plans. Much of what the FAA team has learned will be incorporated into an upcoming guidance document, expected to be out later this year.

The presentation was part of the annual ACC/FAA/TSA Summer Workshop Series, an annual meeting which covers various aspects of aviation, airports, security, and regulatory issues.

Patterson relates that the Hughes Technical Center’ research development group began some six years ago to investigate solar for airfield lighting applications, dealing with the lights on the runways and taxiways. “We were trying to find ways to harness the sun for later use when the sun goes down,” he says. “We started really small with self-contained, light-emitting diode (LED) solar-powered units with no wires.”

As the technology brought more power and luminance, the tech group moved to the runway environment. “Now we’re at the point where some of the manufacturers are creating self-contained units that are so powerful that they actually meet FAA standards for medium intensity runway lights. Over the past few years we’ve seen the technology come a long way; it’s lending itself better to airfield applications.”

Patterson says that light-emitting diodes are attractive because they are bright while using minimal power. “We do have some scenarios where self-contained units aren’t necessarily the best,” he adds. “Maybe we need to take it to the next level, where we’re talking about a full-scale solar array with several photo-voltaic panels and large battery banks and radio communication. We focus more on the airport surface itself.”

For solar, a primary constraint an airport has is to be careful where it puts solar panels — keeping clear of the airport surface where aircraft are operating, according to Patterson. He says that originally there were some concerns within FAA regarding glare that might be generated from the face of the solar panels. “At all of the installations that we have thus far it hasn’t been an issue for any pilots,” he says. “We’ve also not had any complaints from air traffic control facilities. The thought process there was you have a controller in a tower cab that might at a particular angle pose an annoying reflection. Those are kind of myths, if you will.”

The leading challenge with solar today remains battery storage, says Patterson — that is, storing energy during the day for use at night. Much progress is being made, he says, and manufacturers are testing new battery technologies.

“There are all kinds of different rechargeable technologies out there,” he explains. “But that is one of the biggest problems when we talk about airport lighting applications. Yes, we have all this available sun on a nice flat surface; but when the sun goes down we have to go to an alternative source.

“So, all during the day we’ll have to have banked this energy. Really the only way to do that is through the use of battery banks. And you are talking about a lot of batteries. When you consider the lifespan of a solar system, batteries are your weakest link. The solar panels will last 20 to 30 years; the electronics come with ten- to 20-year warranties.

“We haven’t really seen any major efforts to any storing or saving of this energy for use later in the night. I still see that as a technology challenge that we’ll continue to investigate.”

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