Are we flying high with airfield sustainability?

The aviation industry is facing revolutionary change in pursuit of a net zero-emission reality. And in the UK the industry has strengthened its commitment by becoming the first national aviation body to pledge to net zero emissions by 2050 - but how far away are we from where we need to be?

Our Airfield Systems Associate, Massimo Denni, takes a look at Airfield Ground Lighting (AGL) - how far we've come and what else needs to be done to move towards a greener future.

Are the interim decarbonisation targets of 15% by 2030 and 40% by 2040 achievable?

I believe it is very possible. The recent interim decarbonisation targets stated by the UK aviation in June (1) will act as milestones on the path to net zero aviation by 2050. What has been outlined is the roadmap to achieving decarbonisation, which includes sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), and new low and zero carbon technologies, such as electric and hydrogen powered aircraft and vehicles. It's recognised that decarbonising aviation is a huge challenge but with the right support, policies and technology improvements it can be achieved. 

Airfield Ground Lighting (AGL)

Low voltage AGL systems

The last 20 years has seen the industry continually reduce electrical consumption across the airfield campus, by replacing traditional halogen AGL lights with energy efficient LED versions. However, this still requires the AGL system to operate using a constant current high voltage (HV) network with associated regulators installed within an airfield substation - with a large distribution network of cables installed within a pit and duct system to the individual AGL transformers.

Manufacturers are now producing AGL systems that operate using a low voltage network and distributed power delivery systems to supply a single or multiple light. The system, which is designed using constant voltage LED lights, provides significant electrical power savings. Further advantages include:

  • Circa 50% reduction of electrical load verses the HV constant current LED AGL lights
  • Constant Current Regulators (CCRs) and series transformers are no longer required, which provides a reduction of energy power losses and carbon emissions
  • A low voltage system means it is safer to install and importantly increases the safety for airport staff when maintaining the network
  • Improves Life Cycle Assessment due to reduction in capital cost by the elimination of regulators and transformers

Moving away from a high voltage operation towards a low voltage system provides the necessary changes that are required on an operating airfield: efficiency, sustainability, and safety.

Additional AGL carbon reduction measures can be made through the implementation of AGL taxiway guidance control systems to provide controlled routing of aircraft movements along the taxiway, reducing energy consumption. The taxiway would only be illuminated as the aircraft approaches and passes through a particular section of the taxiway network.

Should the aviation industry have replaced the high voltage operation sooner than it has?

It's easy to say this now, and yes, the industry would have liked to have replaced the high voltage network sooner. However, technology improvements take time to develop and implement, especially in a sector where there are strict international regulatory standards and conditions that need to be complied with. And aircraft / passenger safety is of paramount importance.

The introduction of LED AGL systems took many years to develop, approve and implement. Now these advancements in constant low voltage distribution systems have been made, it's up to the aviation industry to continue to develop, review and adopt this and other technologies where possible to help pave the way to net zero aviation.


How important is the role of solar in decarbonisation?

Airports have embraced the application of solar energy to improve their environmental performance and achieve their sustainability goals. Applications have included solar farms adjacent to the airport, and photovoltaic panels installed at strategic locations on or around airport buildings that feed into the main power network; reducing the daytime demand on the electrical utility supply and more importantly lowering carbon emissions.

Switching to solar-powered electrical equipment on the airfield is also possible for providing a secure and environmentally friendly energy source. The electrical equipment will usually be operated by a battery system that's continuously charged during the daylight hours and in operation after dark.

In certain airport locations, solar-powered AGL can also provide a cost-effective carbon free lighting solution compliant with ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organisation) requirements.  

Solar Airfield Ground Lighting (AGL)

Solar runway lighting

Is sustainability in the aviation industry where it should be?

There's definitely the awareness, and effort happening, for sustainability to become more prevalent in the industry, but more work needs to be done.

One of the huge opportunities we have is to improve technology and use sustainable and renewable systems such as:

  • Removing the use of equipment such as regulators and transformers and using a low voltage network to improve the energy efficiency and carbon emissions
  • Implementing solar power generators onto the main power supply to obtain free renewable electrical energy
  • Using solar power generators on airfield equipment and lighting systems
  • Improving AGL control systems so that AGL lights are not on 24/7
  • The increased use of electric and hydrogen vehicles including maintenance vehicles, buses, aircraft and baggage tugs

Integrating this technology ensures that the airfield AGL and aviation systems contribute towards the airport’s roadmap for decarbonisation.

It has also allowed airports to become accredited under the Airport Council International (ACI) Airport Carbon Accreditation scheme. To date, there are 173 airports in the UK and Europe (2) that are accredited, demonstrating the aviation industry is well advanced with solutions for decarbonisation.


How RPS can help

We have an experienced airfield infrastructure and AGL design team who can provide further information on the topics mentioned and how these can be implemented into an existing airfield or new airport development. The team can also advise on a number of other aviation sustainability issues to achieve decarbonisation including the reduction in carbon within airport buildings.



(1) Sustainable Aviation – First Interim Decarbonisation Target, 22 June 2021



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