Risk-assessing sustainable energy solutions for airports

To70 Netherlands Managing Director Ruud Ummels will be speaking at the ACI Airport Exchange in Abu Dhabi at the end of November 2019. The paper he will present, Successful technical and business strategies to implement solar and wind energy at or near your airport, focuses on how to ensure the placement of solar panel fields and wind farms is safe for airport operations.

Assessing risks for solar

We have written about the safety of sustainable energy projects before (this blog for example). Ahead of such a large event in Abu Dhabi – four parallel sessions and over 120 speakers – it seems timely to describe another recent safety assessment project involving solar panel fields.

Solar panels are often placed by an airport airside or on the roofs of buildings. The regional Groningen Airport Eelde here in the Netherlands had an ambitious plan to place over 60.000 solar panels airside. This equates to 20 hectare or power for about 6.200 households. The panels were planned for two locations:

  • a grassy area between the apron and runway, and
  • on the roofs of covered walkways on the apron.

Together with Dutch energy advisor Groen Leven, To70 senior aviation consultant Adrian Young worked with the Groningen Airport’s operational management to assess the safety of their proposed design. The primary safety concern for any solar project is sunlight reflecting off the panels. Using a computer tool to simulate glint and glare in the eyes of pilots, air traffic controllers and airside drivers, To70 was able to pinpoint problems and propose mitigations. A second concern was ensuring that the solar panels would not infringe upon the Annex 14 obstacle surfaces.

Work for this sort of project often includes the additional safety assessment of interference of radio frequencies by the inverters used in solar panel fields, access to the airport by airside drivers and firefighters, and flora and fauna management issues arising from the revised airside infrastructure. Of course, not all these additional elements are relevant when panels are located on rooftops.

Assessing risks for wind

Wind farms create a different set of issues for an airport. Airports must ensure that the location of the wind turbines nearby does not interfere with safe and efficient airport operations. The Annex 14 obstacle surfaces is also an area requiring study.

An issue on which the jury is still out relates to turbulence generated downwind of the wind turbine. Whilst principally relevant for smaller aerodromes and heliports, it is nonetheless a safety challenge to address. Most states mitigate the risk of an upset from turbulent air by applying a conservatively large distance between the wind turbine and the aircraft. Optimum distances have yet to be determined.

The need for risk assessment framework

Significant changes to the situation at an airport should be evaluated as per the change management guidelines of the airport’s SMS. Neither ICAO nor EASA guidelines address the development of solar panel farms airside or close to an airport in detail and there are, so far, apart from the US’s FAA, very few guidelines to help airports and aviation authorities determine what is safe.

To70 uses a mix of regulatory material as a framework for assessing sustainable energy projects that we believe is suitable for a performance-based regulatory regime. As always, early engagement with government and developers should ensure that a balance can be found between the need to develop sustainable energy and the need to keep airports safe.

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