There is nothing new under the sun… or is there?

Sometimes the scariest part of a night flight is taxiing back to the hangar – especially when the taxiway isn’t lighted.

Airports, especially smaller ones, have to balance lighting needs with economic realities. Often that means using low-cost methods of marking taxiways for low-light conditions, such as placing reflectors on the surface or on short poles next to the pavement. The reflectors can only be seen when light hits them directly. Electrically powered taxiway lighting provides better illumination, but the installation is more expensive and time consuming. Then comes the cost of tapping in to the municipal power grid and the ever-climbing operational costs as the price of electricity increases.

“It’s the operational costs that are the worst,” noted David Gotschall, general manager of Truckee-Tahoe Airport (TRK) in California. “You might get a grant from the FAA for acquisition and installation for taxiway lighting, but that grant won’t pay for the operation of them. For that you are on your own and you have to factor that cost in before you accept the grant.”

In 2003 Gotschall was shopping for taxiway lights for the airport when he learned about solar-powered lights available from Carmanah Technology.

“We were looking at a phase grant from the FAA for $1.2 million to install taxiway lights,” he said. “To add hardwire lights would have meant a two-year disruption of the movement areas because of the work that would have to be done, such as the trenching and laying cable.”

“At the time,” he continued, “California was in the middle of a major energy crisis, so solar technology sounded pretty good. Then we looked at the numbers for the installation of the solar-powered system and figured on a cost of $135,000.”

Gotschall determined that installation of the solar-powered units was approximately 10% of the hardwire system, and that the airport would save approximately $18,000 a year in electricity costs.

“That is a huge saving for us, especially when you factor in that we will be using these lights for 20 years,” he said.

A solar panel covers a lens on the lights, which use LED technology. The lights, which have a five-year warranty, automatically charge and store energy, even on overcast days. They can be adjusted for intensity and energy output. The solar lights can be seen from all directions and from altitudes.

“The airport is in mountainous terrain and pilots of the high performance aircraft really like them because they make the airport easier to spot at night,” says Gotschall.

Installation of the solar-powered lights, all 560 of them, was easy, he said, adding, “We did it ourselves.” The lights are also low maintenance. “The biggest problem we have is birds sitting on top of them and covering the solar panel with guano,” he noted. “A pressure washer takes care of that and we are working with Carmanah to design something that will keep the birds from perching on the lights.”

The solar-powered taxiway lights were introduced in the fall of 2002, according to Allister Wilmott, sales manager for Carmanah Technology’s aviation division. As of last month, more than 20,000 of the lights had been installed all over the world, he said.

The military is the greatest user of the lights, but the company is slowly gaining a foothold in the general aviation market thanks to the work done at test bed airports such as Truckee-Tahoe and Cross Keys Airport (17N) in New Jersey.

“We are in a nine-month field test trial at Cross Keys,” says Wilmott. “After that nine months, the FAA technical safety department will submit a report to Washington to see if solar LED technology is a cost effective, reliable solution for GA airports.”

“There is definitely an interest, even from the non-flying public,” said Gotschall. “We recently got a call from a public broadcasting station in the San Francisco Bay area that wants to come out and do a story about our solar-powered airport.”

For more information: SolarAirportLights.com.

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