Lighting Up the Road Ahead

With its bullish state incentives and near-constant sunshine, California has come to represent roughly 80 percent of the U.S. solar market. That makes it all the more appropriate that the official welcoming monument for the state’s largest city is now illuminated by 160 energy efficient LED lighting fixtures offset by their solar electric system.

After 18 years of planning, delays, stalling and more planning, the Vincent Thomas Bridge, the 41 year-old fixture at the Port of Los Angeles is now one of the few bridges in the world to be illuminated by light-emitting diodes (LEDs), and according to developers, the first such bridge installation in the world to combine LEDs with a solar photovoltaic (PV) system. The rare combination of technologies isn’t just a fancy extravagance. It’s actually the underlying reason for the project’s success. Full Circle First opened to traffic on November 15, 1963, the Vincent Thomas Bridge is named after former State Assemblyman Vincent Thomas (1908-1980), who pressed the legislature throughout the 1950s to build the bridge, now a vital transportation link for Los Angeles Harbor. At the time, a recent college graduate named Louis Dominguez worked his first job out of school as an aid for Assemblyman Thomas. The bridge was considered Thomas’ most prominent achievement in office. Years later when the bridge was honored for its 25 birthday, an older Dominguez felt like commemorating both his time as an aide for the bridge’s namesake, and the potential he saw in the structure. “It’s a beautiful bridge but at night it disappeared, so we wanted to do something,” said Dominguez, who became President of the Vincent Thomas Bridge Lighting Committee. But what seemed like a straight-forward enough proposition, turned out to be anything but simple. Project Hurdles Dominguez and the lighting committee consulted local artists and designers who eventually proposed a series of traditional white, upward facing lights to span the bridge. Like most large, visible proposals, the idea had its share of detractors. Friction came principally from the “dark skies” people, those who advocate to minimize unnecessary light pollution, and some environmentalists concerned with how the lights might affect birds’ migratory patterns. Most bridge lighting projects at the time — like the Golden Gate or San Francisco Bay bridges — also required a considerable amount of energy. Unfortunately for the proponents of the lighting project, their effort was building steam just as the state’s power plants were loosing it. In early 2000, the California Energy Crisis hit, resulting in a state order forbidding any decorative lighting projects for state facilities, including bridges. The lighting project was extinguished. A dejected Dominguez and lighting committee were not going to give up so easily. “After that point we were not going stop there,” Dominguez said. “We decided we put too much of our heart and soul into the project.” A Win, Win, Win Solution The key to put a spark back in the lighting project — particularly in the midst of an energy crisis — had actually been proposed years earlier during initial brainstorming. “Some time before we had been approached about LEDs but when this (Energy Crisis) happened we realized that it might have been our only choice,” Dominguez said. As luck would have it, one of the world’s largest LED lighting companies, LEDTronics, was located right in nearby Torrance, California. LEDs, or light emitting diodes, have been around for decades but have only recently become effective lighting options for everything from hiking headlamps to traffic lights. LED bulbs also have one specific strength well-suited for the bridge lighting project: energy efficiency. Each LED fixture requires only 20 watts while offering a light output equivalent to a 150-watt incandescent bulb. With this energy savings, the lighting committee realized they could use a relatively modest solar PV system of 4.5 kW to offset nearly all the power drawn from a whole series of lights. Some estimates using traditional lighting would have required a solar PV system upwards of 70 kW to power the 160 LED fixtures that now cover the bridge. Each bulb, essentially a cluster of 410, 5 millimeter LEDs, also has an average lifetime of over 100,000 hours, which is an especially effective way to lower the project’s ongoing maintenance costs. But most importantly, offsetting the power consumption with solar solved the dilemma of a state mandate against decorative lighting projects. After demonstrating a simple way to offset the cost of the energy, the Vincent Thomas Bridge Lighting Committee was back on track. This combination also won the lighting committee some unexpected praise. “The idea of putting the two together, this got the environmental community on our side,” Dominguez said. The relatively subtle lighting offered by LEDs helped win over dark skies advocates and as a further compromise to conservation groups, the lighting committee agreed to switch the lights on nightly only from dusk to midnight so as not to disturb birds’ migratory patterns. The power used up during the evening hours would be offset during the day by the solar PV array. A Project Realized With all these factors in place, the project was given a go-ahead for construction. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) offered some funding and donated the 4.5 kW solar PV array, which they mounted on one of their power distribution stations adjacent of the bridge. The lighting project could also help liven up the area according LADWP’s John Chen, Assistant Director of the Economic Development at the LADWP, who helped work with the Bridge Lighting Committee. “It’s to showcase renewable energy and really mix the traditional bridge with the new technology of solar and LED lighting right in the gateway to Los Angeles,” Chen said. “It could become a main tourist attraction because of the docking of cruise ships, and hopefully a catalyst for development.” Chen said the LADWP would likely consider LED options for future projects. Already, the wider architecture and design community is taking a real interest in the new possibilities offered by LEDS. “Decor lighting is getting more and more interest in energy savings,” said Jordon Papanier, spokeman for LEDTronics. “LED coloring is improving, more architects and designers are looking toward LEDs — and energy efficiency is a big part of that.” Citing paybacks within a year and half for the Vincent Thomas project, Dominguez is certain that other projects will increasingly tap into the successful combination of solar and LED lighting. “This proves you can beautify with light and still make it environmentally friendly.” To see a full-size photograph of the project, courtesy of the Port of Los Angeles, see the first link below.