Dawning of New Era for Lighthouse : L.A. Harbor Seamark Shifts to Solar Power

Times Staff Writer

During the past three-quarters of a century, the Los Angeles lighthouse has been shot at by vandals, battered off center by violent winter storms and nearly leveled by a giant battleship.

But on Tuesday, the historic seamark at the mouth of Los Angeles Harbor endured its most significant assault yet: one led by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Armed with wrenches, screwdrivers, suitcase-sized batteries and an array of electrical wires, Coast Guard workers dismantled the lighthouse's 76-year-old, 300-pound lantern and replaced it with a modern, 20-pound version that is powered by solar energy.

First in California

When the new fluorescent light began flashing late Tuesday, the structure off San Pedro became the first lighthouse in California to rely on sun as its source of energy, according to the U.S. Lighthouse Society in San Francisco. Other navigational aides, such as buoys and lights not in lighthouses, are already solar powered, as are lighthouses in other states.

"I am proud to be part of it," said Charlie Ashmore, a Coast Guard employee who arrived at the lighthouse at 6:30 a.m. to begin the daylong conversion. Ashmore has made repairs to the lighthouse for nearly 20 years.

"This change is good," he said. "It will mean less work, and it will be cheaper for the government." Six solar panels bolted to the southern railing of the lantern deck near the top of the 73-foot tower have replaced an unreliable electrical cable that ran two miles from Cabrillo Beach along the San Pedro Bay breakwater to the lighthouse.

The cable was knocked out when winter storms destroyed several sections of the breakwater in 1982 and 1983. Since then, the light and an accompanying foghorn have been powered by backup generators.

Batteries Charged for Night

Under the solar system, the panels soak up sunlight and power the lighthouse during the day and also charge a row of batteries, which then release the needed power at night.

A separate set of 24 solar panels mounted to the roof of an adjacent storage building has been wired to the lighthouse's radio beacon, which alerts mariners as far away as 15 miles that they are approaching Los Angeles.

The changes come as the Coast Guard, which operates lighthouses and other navigational aids nationwide, is placing greater emphasis on solar energy as a cost-saving alternative to traditional sources of power.

Similar conversions of lighthouses in New England, which has the highest concentration of lighthouses in the country, have been highly successful, Coast Guard officials said. The Coast Guard has converted 16 of the 102 lighthouses in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

"Most of them are on islands or remote rocky points," said Petty Officer Ken Arborgast, a spokesman for the Coast Guard in Boston. "They originally tried to use electricity, but they had problems with the cables. The storms and tides would just pull them up."

In Los Angeles, the Coast Guard estimated that it would cost $60,000 to replace the electrical cable and a small power station at Cabrillo Beach that was also damaged in the winter storms. For about $45,000, the agency can convert to solar energy, add a new radar navigational aid on a buoy near the lighthouse and provide radio beacons at the nearby Point Vicente lighthouse and at the Los Angeles lighthouse.

The switch to solar energy has resulted in some changes to the basic functions of the lighthouse, according to Lt. Bill Meyn, a Coast Guard engineer overseeing the conversion.

The lantern continues to flash every 15 seconds, but it has a maximum visual range of 15 miles, four miles less than the old lantern. The foghorn, which used to sound a series of three two-second blasts every 30 seconds, now operates continuously.

Meyn and others said most skippers will be unable to detect the differences because they generally rely on the lantern and foghorn when relatively close to shore.

"It doesn't change a thing," said Capt. Jackson Pearson, chief port pilot for the Port of Los Angeles, whose only concern about the conversion was that the lantern's green color not be abandoned. Pearson, whose staff escorts ships into the harbor, said the color has become the hallmark of Los Angeles, distinguishing it from other West Coast ports.

Tradition Preserved

"The green light has been traditional, and we don't want to lose any history if we don't have to," Pearson said. Most lighthouses have white lamps.

The Coast Guard, which is considering leasing or loaning the old lantern to the Los Angeles Maritime Museum in San Pedro, has obliged Pearson and other longtime harbor-area residents by placing a green lens in the new solar-powered lantern. The lighthouse, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, was manned from its opening until 1971, when it became fully automated.

Another important change at the lighthouse occurred in June, involving its sequenced radio beacon, which in conjunction with two other beacons in Southern California helps mariners chart their course. The solar power would not be strong enough to operate the sequenced beacon, so it was moved 25 miles northwest to Point Vicente lighthouse in Rancho Palos Verdes. It was replaced with a shorter-range beacon.

The conversion to solar power has gone smoothly, Meyn said, but the Coast Guard has no immediate plans to remove the backup generators on the first floor of the tower. While solar batteries could power the light, foghorn and radio beacon for about two weeks without sun, the generators provide additional security.

"Engineers by nature are conservative," Meyn said. "I have all the time in the world to take the generators out."

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