A Bright Future For Lighthouses

hrScene Photo/Taylor O’Bier

It’s not a good day when there’s no light in the lighthouse- but two months ago, that’s exactly what happened. An intense storm in mid-January knocked the lights out at Cape Hatteras. There was no light in the lighthouse for over a month.

But the U.S. Coast Guard saved the day- because it is, literally, their job to “keep the lights on.” After $3,000 on Feb. 17, the lights flicked back on. The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, built in 1870, is not exactly a cutting-edge new technology. That being said, the Coast Guard and the National Park Service are actively partnering to integrate technology with the historic legacy of the lighthouse.

While the National Park Service oversees lighthouses, the Coast Guard still uses them. Even in modern times, they’re still important tools for navigation. U.S. Coast Guard spokesman Nate Cox told the Associated Press that even with GPS and digital mapping, you can’t beat the power and simplicity of a lighthouse.

For that reason, the Coast Guard is working to keep the lights on. And at many historic lighthouses, the lights are flicking back on with solar power.

The Cape Lookout Lighthouse in North Carolina recently went under the surgeon’s knife. Last Fall 2017, the 161-year-old Cape Lookout emerged with new cutting-edge technology powering its iconic exterior. The lights are now solar-powered LEDs, and a beautiful array of solar panels power the  surrounding Visitor Buildings. The Coast Guard, Park Service, and engineers thought this was important. Solar-powered LEDs save a lot on the electric bill.

The Coast Guard and National Park Service completed a cooperative initiative in the fall of 2017 to modernize the famous Cape Lookout Lighthouse with an LED optic that runs on solar power. The modernization will save money and reduce impact to the coastal environment. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class/Released)

“The cost to replace an existing submarine cable at one of our Mid-Atlantic lighthouses can be $2 to 3 million,”  said Chris Scraba, deputy chief of the waterways management branch for the 5th Coast Guard District in Portsmouth, Va. in a press release. “The cost to modernize that same light with solar panels and an LED optic can be significantly less.”

Solar-powered LEDs are also a low-impact technology. Lighthouses in remote locations usually require elaborate underwater cable networks to keep the power on. These underwater cables disrupt the marine ecosystem. Solar-powered LEDs don’t.

“Installing a new submarine cable could potentially disturb the coastal environment,” said Capt. Jerry Barnes, chief of prevention for the 5th District in a press release. “The shift to solar panels is the natural solution and aligns with our mission to protect marine environments and living marine resources.”

Modernization of Cape Lookout is not ahistoric- in fact, it’s a significant part of Cape Lookout’s innovative past. Between 1859 and 1982, the light’s power source was modified 10 times. The light source originally relied on a diesel generator, gradually shifting to commercial power, then underwater cables and now, in 2018, solar power.

This could be part of a very bright future.