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Aging lighthouse gains new life as beacon for offshore wind industry

National Renewable Energy Laboratory

The Chesapeake Light Tower, a former Coast Guard lighthouse, will get new life as a test bed for equipment in the offshore wind industry.

By John Roach, NBC News Digital

An aging, wind-battered lighthouse about 13 miles off the coast of Virginia is set to gain new life as a test bed for technologies that could expedite the development of the offshore wind industry, the U.S. Department of Energy announced today.

Models suggest the raw potential of offshore wind is sufficient to meet the entire current electricity needs in the U.S., according to Will Shaw, an atmospheric scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, who discussed plans for the test bed facility at a conference today in Austin, Texas.

“But we don’t have any observations — at least over the long term — that can validate those models,” he told NBC News in a telephone interview. “And so there is uncertainty.”

Uncertainty is a key factor that causes banks to charge higher interest rates when financing offshore wind projects, which in turn drives up the cost of the wind-wrung electricity delivered to the people.

The Department of Energy has $3.2 million in funding to turn the Chesapeake Light Tower, formerly run by the Coast Guard, into the Reference Facility for Offshore Renewable Energy. It will primarily validate models and instruments the industry uses to assess offshore wind resources.

National Renewable Energy Laboratory

A meteorological mast will measure wind speeds up to 100 meters above sea level.

For example, it will validate buoy-based sensors that measure wind speeds with a radar-like technique called lidar that bounces light waves off flecks of dust and sea spray. The problem is, “They sit on these buoys and they bounce around so it is necessary to correct for the motion from the waves,” Shaw said.

Scientists have created models that do the correcting, but they have yet to validate the models in the open ocean. The reference facility will test the lidar system on buoys and the former lighthouse platform, which will help validate the measurements, he explained.

Over the long term, these buoys, which are transportable and reusable, are a better investment than building an offshore meteorological tower to collect the same data. For onshore wind, such towers are commonly used, but cost “many millions of dollars” to effectively install offshore, Shaw noted.

This type of validation work is standard practice in a developing industry such as offshore wind, according to Aris Karcanias, a London-based managing consultant in the renewable energy practice with Navigant, a business consulting firm. 

Currently, he added, the wind resource off the U.S. coast is poorly mapped. To get investors onboard with an offshore wind project, they need assurance that the resource exists where it is said to exist. “Fuel for offshore wind is wind,” he noted. “If the wind isn’t there, it is pointless.”

The equipment to be tested on the old lighthouse, which has a helicopter landing pad and can accommodate overnight staff, will allow for the type of wind forecasting that “will enable the correct selection of sites to ensure performance of a very expensive asset offshore,” Karcanias added.

John Roach is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. To learn more about him, check out his website.