Cape Lookout Lighthouse to get solar, LED upgrades

The Cape Lookout Lighthouse in Carteret County will soon be powered by solar energy and switch to an LED light source.
The Cape Lookout Lighthouse in Carteret County will soon be powered by solar energy and switch to an LED light source. 2009 Charlotte Observer file photo

As it has done many times in nearly a century and a half of guarding the North Carolina coast, the Cape Lookout Lighthouse will get a technological upgrade this fall when it switches from electrical to solar power and from incandescent to LED light.

An underwater power line, several feet in diameter, that runs about 5 miles from Harkers Island to Cape Lookout to provide electricity for the light “is at the end of its life span,” said Petty Officer Joshua Canup of Coast Guard Headquarters in Portsmouth, Va. The cable was laid in 1982, and to replace it would cost between $2 million and $3 million, according to government estimates.

Likewise, the Cape Lookout light presently shines with two 1,000-watt DCB-24 aerobeacons that have been rotating in the top of the 163-foot tower since 1975.

Switching to solar power and LED lighting will cost less than $6,000, Canup said. Annual maintenance costs will drop from about $93,000 a year to about $1,200, he said.

With the switch to LED, the light will have a reduced maximum range, dropping from 24 nautical miles to 14 nautical miles. The light will no longer rotate, but the effect will be the same, with a white flash every 15 seconds visible from 360 degrees.

In a statement released by the Coast Guard, Chris Scraba of the 5th District Waterways Management Branch said the reduced distanced would not affect navigation.

“Our utmost goal continues to be ensuring the safe navigation of the mariner,” Scraba said. “With Cape Lookout Shoals already properly marked with six sea-going buoys, and the range of the new optic still reaching approximately four nautical miles beyond the continuous shoals, the modernization of the light will ensure its continued reliable service to the mariner in a cost effective and environmentally conscious way.”

Canup added that lighthouses are not a primary means of navigation; most mariners rely on GPS systems and buoys first.

158-year-old tower

According to a history of the light provided by the National Park Service, which owns it, the Cape Lookout Lighthouse was completed in 1859, replacing a shorter tower built in 1812. The present structure, with thick brick walls, was the first of its kind on the North Carolina coast and served as a model for others to come.

The Coast Guard plans to switch Cape Lookout light to solar power and LED lighting in October, making it the first lighthouse in North Carolina to do so, Canup said. Several other lighthouses around the country have been converted to LED and solar, including ones in Newport News and Assateague, Va., and Thomas Point, Md., near Annapolis.

Its first light came from the burning of whale oil. Operators later switched to less costly kerosene, and then to an incandescent oil vapor lamp in 1914. The light got electricity in 1933, created by diesel-powered generators until commercial power arrived via the underwater line from the mainland in 1982.

During the day, the tower’s black-and-white diamond paint pattern helps it stand out to passing ships.

Canup said the size and placement of the solar array that would power the new light have not yet been determined. The tower has a small solar panel and backup LED lighting already.

Martha Quillin: 919-829-8989, @MarthaQuillin

To comment

The Coast Guard, which maintains the Cape Lookout Lighthouse, will take public comment on the switch to solar and LED until May 16. Forms are available at nando.com/capelookout. Comments also may be emailed to Ethan Coble at Ethan.J.Coble@uscg.mil or to CGD5Waterways@uscg.mil and should reference “Cape Lookout Modernization.”