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Shedding Light on Offshore Wind Resources

March 22, 2013

View of the Chesapeake Bay light tower in the water.

The Chesapeake Bay light tower is located approximately 13 miles from the Virginia coast near the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. The top of the tower is 120 feet above the water.

Offshore wind energy can help the nation reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, diversify its energy supply, provide cost-competitive electricity to key coastal regions, and stimulate revitalization of key sectors of the economy by investing in infrastructure and creating skilled jobs. According to the National Offshore Wind Strategy published by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) in 2011, the nation's offshore wind resource could supply 54 gigawatts of generating capacity by 2030. However, to tap into that potential, more data on the nature of offshore wind resources and the ocean environment is needed.

An opportunity to address this need was created recently when the DOE Wind Program took custody of the Chesapeake Bay light tower from the U.S. Coast Guard. The tower, which is located offshore approximately 13 miles east of Virginia near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, is being considered for use as a Reference Facility for Offshore Renewable Energy (RFORE). Initially, the RFORE would be upgraded with a tower equipped to conduct meteorological and oceanographic research for the development of offshore wind energy technologies. The tower would be used to collect wind speed and direction data at various heights above sea level, as well as measurements relevant for the research community such as temperature profiles for atmospheric stability, water vapor (moisture profiles), turbulence, two-dimensional wave spectrum (to measure friction on the ocean surface), and ocean surface temperature.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) will work together with DOE headquarters to establish the RFORE. NREL will be the lead laboratory for the repair, upgrade, and operation of the facility. Upgrades will include installation of a meteorological tower and a data acquisition system that will record and deliver data sets to shore. PNNL will support DOE in developing the RFORE research agenda, instrumentation specifications, and a data management system. Data collected from the RFORE will be made available to user groups such as developers, researchers, and the offshore wind and marine and hydrokinetic industries. DOE will also convene a science advisory board for independent expert advice on the research agenda and RFORE capabilities.

Built in 1965, the Chesapeake Bay light tower was one of six nearly identical "Texas Tower" lights on the East Coast. For many years, the tower has been used for various forms of research by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the University of Maryland. The Coast Guard excessed the tower, giving DOE the opportunity to utilize it for offshore renewable energy research. As a pre-existing structure in a location with excellent offshore wind resources, it provides a cost-effective alternative to building a new platform large enough to support an 80- to 100-meter tall meteorological tower.