Digest>Archives> June 2001

Coast Guard Looks at Fuel Cells as a New Energy Source

Cape Henry Lights the Way

By Jeremy D'Entremont


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Cape Henry Lighthouse, Virginia. Photograph by ...
Photo by: Kathy Gift

The United States Coast Guard is giving fuel cell technology a close look at the 1881 Cape Henry Lighthouse in Virginia Beach, Virginia. This marriage of old and new technologies may provide a glimpse into the future of the way many aids to navigation will receive their power in years to come.

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A worker inspects the fuel cell power system ...

Besides maintaining hundreds of lighthouses and other lighted aids to navigation, the Coast Guard operates many facilities like communications stations, weather stations, and radio navigation stations. The Coast Guard is faced with aging equipment and unreliable electrical power sources at many of these facilities. In addition, there have been several Federal laws and Executive Orders that require energy reduction and “greening initiatives” for federal operations. As a result, the Coast Guard has set goals of reducing facility energy costs by 12% and consumption by 20% by fiscal year 2005 over 1995 levels.

Older power sources, like diesel-electric generators or gas turbines, have high operating and maintenance costs and may also produce high levels of pollutants. Underground and submarine cables, such as those that power some lighthouses, can be unreliable and subject to damage. All these factors, along with recent power shortages, are driving the need to evaluate alternative energy sources. Innovation and new technology have become necessities.

In 1998 the U.S. Coast Guard Research and Development Center in Groton, Connecticut, began a collaboration with the National Energy Technology Laboratory of the U.S. Department of Energy on the development of alternative power sources, such as fuel cells. A fuel cell is an electrochemical power generator, much like a battery that never loses its charge. As long as fuel and air are supplied, a fuel cell will continue to produce electricity and heat without the pollutants normally associated with burning fuel. With fuel cells, the only by-products are heat, water, and carbon dioxide.

Last year it was decided to proceed with a demonstration of fuel cell technology at Cape Henry Lighthouse in Virginia. In September 2000, FuelCell Energy, Inc., based in Danbury, Connecticut, was contracted to install a 3 kW direct methanol fuel cell at the lighthouse. The installation was due to be completed in mid-May.

“This demonstration project by FuelCell Energy is the first application of fuel cells at a remote, unmanned site in a marine environment,” said Walt Lincoln, project manager of the U.S. Coast Guard Research and Development Center. “We’re interested in the potential of the fuel cell because of its promise of reduced maintenance and greater reliability compared to other systems.”

The Coast Guard may soon be experimenting with the use of fuel cells at some of their small, remote, unstaffed sites, such as DGPS, LORAN, and aids to navigation other than lighthouses.

According to Walt Lincoln, maintenance costs of fuel cells are relatively low. “When the technology is fully developed, we anticipate the maintenance requirement to be an annual visit for fueling and replacement of filters,” he says.

Don’t look for fuel cell technology to replace the arrays of solar panels now at many lighthouses any time soon. The cost of providing and transporting fuel is obviously more than the cost of receiving sunlight. For locations with minimal sunlight, such as Alaska in the winter, and higher powered applications such as communication and radio navigation stations, a higher powered source using fuel is needed. But at lighthouses that don’t require much power and don’t have sufficient area for solar panels, such as Miah Maull Lighthouse in the Delaware Bay, fuel cell power systems might be good alternatives, according to Lincoln.

For more information you can contact FuelCell Energy, Inc. website: www.fuelcellenergy.com or U.S. Coast Guard Research and Development at 860-441-2600. Website: www.rdc.uscg.mil

This story appeared in the June 2001 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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