FORT STORY —— Grady Koch is not a weatherman but he knows which way the wind blows.
The NASA researcher has been using a high-powered laser to calculate gusts off the Atlantic coast that many hope will someday quench our nation’s thirst for electricity.
“We’re measuring the scattering of aerosols, which is a fancy word for dust, in the atmosphere,” he said.
While common in Europe, offshore wind power remains a novelty in the United States. Only one oceanic wind farm has been approved – off Cape Cod, Mass. – while others have been proposed.
In addition to Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey, Virginia has been identified by the federal government as a good candidate to harness offshore wind power.
State and federal regulators singled out 140,000 acres – about the size of Hampton and Poquoson combined – off the coast of Virginia Beach for wind turbines. The zone, which will be divided into 20 lease blocks, has been vetted by shipping industry, the Department of Defense, NASA and other interested parties.
George Hagerman, director of offshore wind research for the Virginia Coastal Energy Research Consortium, said it could eventually provide 10 percent of the state’s power demand.
Scientists have not pinpointed which lease blocks contain the strongest, most reliable and – consequently – valuable winds. That’s where Koch and NASA come into play.
Developed at Langley Research Center in Hampton during the 1980s, Doppler LIDAR maps wind speeds in three dimensions. The high-powered laser, mostly used aboard airplanes that fly through hurricanes, has a range of roughly eight miles.
From a trailer parked at Fort Story, an Army base where the Chesapeake Bay meets the ocean, Koch has been gathering data that will be compared to shore-based weather stations. If accurate, Hagerman hopes to convince state officials to build a similar machine that would be placed at Chesapeake Bay Light Tower, about 13 miles offshore.
Private industry is using LIDAR to measure winds off the New Jersey coast, but the NASA laser is more powerful and can provide more accurate data, Hagerman said.
The U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement is expected within weeks to open the lease blocks in Virginia and elsewhere to private industry. At least one utility company, Dominion Virginia Power, said it is interested in bidding in Virginia.
Two other companies, including Charlottesville-based Apex Offshore Wind, previously submitted unsolicited bids to develop wind power off Virginia’s coast.
Other companies, including Newport News-based Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc., are setting up facilities to build and test wind turbines. But it will be years before wind turbines line the Atlantic shore, Hagerman said.
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