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Sunny Side Up : Los Angeles Lighthouse Will Be the First in California to Use Solar Power to Keep Its Lamp Lit

July 16, 1987|DEAN MURPHY | Times Staff Writer

They are pulling the plug on the historic Los Angeles lighthouse, but it is unlikely many people will even notice.

The distinctive white and black tower at the mouth of Los Angeles Harbor, whose flashing light has guided thousands of mariners for three-quarters of a century, is being converted from electricity to solar power.

The move comes as the Coast Guard, which operates lighthouses and other navigational aides nationwide, is placing greater emphasis on solar energy as a cost saving alternative to traditional sources of power, Coast Guard officials said.

The Los Angeles lighthouse will be the first traditional 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 traditional houses, are already solar powered, as are traditional lighthouses in other parts of the country.

For years, the lantern, fog horn and radio beacon at the Los Angeles lighthouse were powered by an electrical cable that ran two miles from Cabrillo Beach along the San Pedro Bay breakwater to the lighthouse, which is so far from shore that its keepers were sometimes stranded there for days during storms.

The cable was knocked out when winter storms in 1982 and 1983 destroyed several sections of the breakwater. Since then, the lighthouse has been powered by its back-up diesel generators, which actually were the lighthouse's original power source.

In the next few weeks, the generators will be disconnected and several dozen solar panels will be set up on the roof of an adjacent storage building. By the end of August, the lighthouse should be running solely on solar power, the Coast Guard said.

Similar conversions of lighthouses in New England, which has the highest concentration of lighthouses in the country, have been highly successful, said Petty Officer Ken Arborgast, a spokesman for the Coast Guard in Boston. The Coast Guard has converted 16 of the 102 lighthouses in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, he said.

"Most of them are on islands or remote rocky points," Arborgast said. "They originally tried to use electricity, but they had problems with the cables. The storms and tides would just pull them up."

The energy switch at the Los Angeles lighthouse--at the entrance to one of the nation's busiest harbors--is also expected to go smoothly. Lt. Bill Meyn, who is overseeing the conversion for the Coast Guard, said it will result in minor changes to the basic functions of the lighthouse.

The green lantern atop the 73-foot-high tower will continue to flash every 15 seconds, and the fog signal will still sound a series of three two-second blasts every 30 seconds, he said. But both the lantern and the fog signal will have reduced intensity. The new lantern, for example, will have a maximum visual range of 15 miles, four miles less than the current lantern. Meyn and others said most skippers will be unable to detect the difference since they generally rely on the lantern and fog signal 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 green lantern not be abandoned. Pearson, whose staff escorts ships into the harbor, said the green signal has become the hallmark of Los Angeles, distinguishing it from other West Coast ports.

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

The Coast Guard will turn the green lantern over to the Los Angeles Maritime Museum in San Pedro, but the Coast Guard has agreed to place a green lens in the new solar-powered lantern, Meyn said.

The most significant change at the lighthouse, which involves its radio beacon, already has taken place.

Because the new solar-powered batteries will not be powerful enough to operate the lighthouse's sequenced radio beacon, the beacon last month was moved about 25 miles northwest to the Point Vicente lighthouse in Rancho Palos Verdes.

The sequenced radio beacon is used by mariners to plot their course in conjunction with two other beacons in Southern California: at Point Loma in San Diego and Point Arguello in Santa Barbara County. All three beacons transmit in sequence on the same frequency, allowing passing ships to get a triple navigational fix without changing the tuner.

At its new location high on the coastal bluffs at Point Vicente on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, the sequenced radio beacon has a range of 140 miles--nearly double the range it had at Los Angeles lighthouse, Meyn said. The new Point Vicente beacon operates on a 302 kilohertz frequency with the Morse code letter V.

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