No need to be blinded by solar panel benefits

If you have ever glanced out of an airplane window during a landing, chances are you have seen sunlight reflecting off water, buildings or – these days – even solar panels. More and more airports are constructing solar panels airside to help achieve their environmental goals, and especially in a way that also happens to be economically beneficial. The question is: how well do solar panels and aviation safety go together?

Several studies have shown that solar glare is a potential hazard for pilots.

Commitment to sustainability

Airports are increasingly committed to working actively to implement sustainability projects that will provide eco-friendly and carbon accreditation benefits. Naturally, such projects would ideally be economically valuable. Their success could also motivate other airports to make the transition to green energy.

In fact, the installation of solar panel fields at airports across the world has resulted in some airports being completely self-sufficient in meeting their energy needs. In some cases, the airport gives excess energy back to the grid, thereby generating profits.

A blinding hazard

The placement of solar panels does raise some safety questions, however. One of these questions is the potential risk of pilots, air traffic controllers or drivers of vehicles airside being blinded by the glare. What are the consequences? What level of risk is acceptable?

To answer these questions, the safety of the solar panel system must be evaluated prior to installation. Surface glare for pilots and others, interference with navigation aids, and access to the airport by fire and rescue crews are some examples of the issues that need to be evaluated.

Several studies have shown that solar glare is a potential hazard for pilots, which could lead to accidents. Incident reports exist where pilots claim to have been blinded by the intense glare reflected from the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in California. Even though this plant is built on an unprecedented scale and uses a different technique than regular solar panels, it does illustrate the risks for pilots subjected to giant reflective surfaces. This is one of the reasons modern solar panels are often made with darkened surfaces that limit reflection.

Avoiding the glare

We find that these risks can be easily avoided by planning for construction of the solar panels in a safe manner. This includes the prior execution of a safety assessment that considers the location and orientation of the proposed solar panels. Our safety assessments, for example, include the occurrence of glare for pilots, controllers and vehicle drivers so that ground operations are also assessed. A glint glare analyses provides highly valuable advice on where and how to place solar panels together in such a way that the safety of daily operations is guaranteed.

The placement of solar panels is an efficient way of utilizing the empty space surrounding an airport, giving a significant purpose to otherwise unused land. And we are delighted to see these sustainable applications being made in aviation. But, as always in aviation, safety should have the highest priority.

About To70. To70 is one of the world’s leading aviation consultancies, founded in the Netherlands with offices in Europe, Australia, Asia, and Latin America. To70 believes that society’s growing demand for transport and mobility can be met in a safe, efficient, environmentally friendly and economically viable manner. To achieve this, policy and business decisions have to be based on objective information. With our diverse team of specialists and generalists to70 provides pragmatic solutions and expert advice, based on high-quality data-driven analyses. For more information, please refer to www.to70.com.

One thought on “No need to be blinded by solar panel benefits

  1. Solar Panels and Ivanpah are apples and oranges. Ivanpah uses MIRRORS which are designed to reflect 95%+ of sunlight concentrating on a single surface making it extremely bright. Solar Panels are designed as black body radiators to ABSORB as much as they can to produce power; anything reflected is wasted energy. The glass coverings are often coated with anti-reflective coatings so as much of the energy as possible is transmitted into the panel and not radiated away into space. In 35 years as a professional pilot, I’ve only had issue with light from the ground twice: once at Ivanpah and the second time just up the road over the Luxor hotel. Comparing Ivanpah to a solar field is not reasonable as they are two completely different levels of hazard.

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