by Jesse Broehl, Editor, RenewableEnergyAccess.com News
160 LED light fixtures light up the Vincent Thomas Bridge in Los Angeles.
During the day a solar photovoltaic system offsets the power needed for the
Photo: Port of Los Angeles
Los Angeles, California [RenewableEnergyAccess.com] 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.
"This proves you can beautify with light and still make
it environmentally friendly."
- Louis Dominguez, President of the Vincent Thomas Bridge Lighting Committee.
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.
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.
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,"
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
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
To see a full-size photograph of the project, courtesy of the Port of Los Angeles,
see the first link below.
FOR FURTHUR INFORMATION
Full-size photograph of the illuminated Vincent Thomas Bridge
Vincent Thomas Bridge Lighting Web site
LED Lights at LEDtronics www.LEDtronics.com.