STEVE SZKOTAK

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) â¿¿ The Chesapeake Light Tower, a 1965-vintage lighthouse 13 miles off Virginia Beach, could find new life illuminating the potential for wind farms off the state's coast.

The light, which has been declared government surplus, is being looked at as a platform for instruments to collect meteorological, oceanographic and environmental data. The offshore wind industry, investors and suppliers will seek that information before investing in what is an emerging technology in the United States.

In the world of fossil fuels, the ocean testing is akin to drilling a test well.

The prospect of using the light â¿¿ a tower rising 120 feet above the ocean surface on steel pilings â¿¿ was contained in a report presented Tuesday at the inaugural meeting of an eight-member state panel created to promote the development of offshore winds.

The Virginia Offshore Wind Development Authority meeting was devoted primarily to briefing members and presenting reports, including one by Dominion Virginia Power. The state's largest utility said its current transmission infrastructure has the potential to handle a large-scale offshore wind farm.

The panel's membership includes representatives from utility companies, investor groups, and others likely to have a stake in the development of offshore winds in Atlantic waters. One member, for instance, is with Orbital Sciences Corp., which is building a commercial spaceflight center on the Eastern Shore. NASA officials have expressed concerns about offshore activities because they might interfere with existing and future launch activities.

Bob Mathias, assistant to the city manager in Virginia Beach and a member of the authority, said the city is considering the purchase of the Chesapeake Light for long-range radar now located at a local military base. The Federal Aviation Administration has told the city that the radar's performance is diminished by high-rises, including the many that line the tourist city's oceanfront.

Mathias estimates the tower would require $1.5 million in maintenance. He said it is accessible only by helicopter because Hurricane Isabel blew away a boat landing and stairwell in 2003.

NASA and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration now use the tower for various testing instruments.

A report prepared by the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy said a similar tower would cost from $4 million to $7 million to build. The government is seeking $95,000 for the Chesapeake Light Tower.

The data that would be collected are deemed critical because of the huge dimensions of offshore wind turbines and the dearth of monitoring equipment in offshore waters. Offshore turbines can rise hundreds of feet off the ocean surface and support blades equally long.

An area about 12 miles off Virginia Beach has been identified as the probable future location of wind farms.

Increasingly East Coast states are seeking offshore opportunities with study after study touting the untapped potential in Atlantic waters. The Obama administration has also put Atlantic gas and oil exploration on the shelf for the next seven years.

Of the 212 gigawatts of wind power potential off the Atlantic coast, wind projects harnessing 6 gigawatts have been proposed or are advancing through the permitting process, according to one report.

Maureen Matsen, Gov. Bob McDonnell's energy adviser, said the state wants to be home to an offshore demonstration center, which would design and test offshore turbines. The U.S. Department of Energy is expected to announce the center's home in January.

"To have it in Virginia would be tremendous," she said.

Brian Redmond, managing director of CP Energy Group, works with investors seeking to invest in renewable energy. He's a member of the authority and said Virginia has "great potential and a tremendous amount of resources," including port facilities.

"There's a lot of different directions we can go as an authority," he said. "What's important is for us to come up with some measurable objectives."

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