FAA tests solar-power airfield lighting at Penn Yan Airport

Jim Tise, FAA

Could green energy provide safety benefits on top of environmental improvements and cost savings?

Solar lighting system installed at Penn Yan Airport.

PENN YAN — Cutting carbon emissions. Protecting the environment and public health. Trimming operating costs. These are the standard benefits associated with aviation’s move toward sustainability. But could green energy provide safety benefits as well?

The Federal Aviation Administration is studying how solar-powered lighting and signs along runways and taxiways could improve airfield visibility at night and during bad weather at smaller and general aviation airports.

While major airports generally have airfield lighting powered by expensive, centralized electrical systems, many smaller airports only have non-illuminated signs, markings, windsocks, and other pilot aids.

“The real benefit is safety for airports that could not otherwise afford a system like [those at major airports],” said Ryan King of the FAA’s Airport Safety Research & Development Section at the William J. Hughes Technical Center. “We’d be providing general aviation a level of safety without any carbon footprint.”

The FAA is evaluating a solar lighting system installed in September 2021 at Penn Yan Airport in the Finger Lakes region of New York, and plans to evaluate additional systems in Arizona beginning this fall, and later in Washington State and Oklahoma.

At Penn Yan Airport, 23 safety systems — including runway and taxiway edge lights, obstruction lights, elevated runway guard lights, windsocks, and signs — will be lit with their own solar panels and battery supplies. The FAA will gather performance data for a year.

The project will determine the equipment’s compliance with FAA photometric and reserve battery requirements; assess the functionality and durability of the equipment under various weather conditions; and provide a cost comparison between installing and operating decentralized solar airfield devices compared to conventionally powered equipment.

Testing the durability of solar-powered lighting equipment in snow at Penn Yan Airport.

King noted a side benefit should solar-powered lighting prove safe and reliable. Many of these airports are in rural areas that don’t have immediate access to medical or other emergency services. A better-equipped airport could become a lifesaving option in times of crisis.

“There’s also an equity piece to making these small airports more accessible to more flights and to more people,” he said.

He’s optimistic about the evaluations.

“Lighting and solar technology has advanced so much that manufacturers are now producing things that look and operate much more to our standards,” King said. “There are a lot of aspects to this we could see play out.”