Special Reports

Sun could power bridge lights

If there is any place on Earth where natural forces could be harnessed to produce electricity, you would think it would be the Tacoma Narrows, with its notorious tidal currents and legendary winds.

The thought has inspired any number of entrepreneurs and inventors.

However, in its lighting study, the state Department of Transportation and its bridge contractor, Tacoma Narrows Constructors, looked into using renewable energy sources to power lighting and came to the same conclusion: No alternative system out there makes economic sense.

Richard Thompson isn’t buying it. “They don’t understand electricity,” he said, shaking his head. “They have no concept.”

Thompson, known to many as “Solar Richard,” is Tacoma’s eccentric but widely respected solar champion (he’s preparing to go to Nigeria, where he’ll speak about the possibility of plugging in the entire country to solar power).

He says an inexpensive solar lighting system easily could be set up near the bridge and not only power an LED lighting system but have plenty of power left over.

“You could actually make money by selling excess power back to the grid,” he said.

Thompson already has an implementation plan: he would put a 225-square-foot solar collector at each end of the bridge, out of sight on steep triangles of land owned by the Transportation Department.

The system would be one the rest of the world could look to as an example, Thompson said.

“We are so proud of our bridge, let’s build the best lighting system the face of the planet,” he said.

It would not be the first time solar power has been used to light up a bridge.

Solar power works on Los Angeles’ Vincent Thomas Bridge, or, at least, sort of.

A 4.5-kilowatt solar system generates electricity and sells it to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. The LED fixtures on the bridge aren’t plugged directly into the panel but take an equivalent amount of energy off the grid.

For what it’s worth, Thompson’s solar vision is shared by some prominent South Sound politicians. State Rep. Pat Lantz, D-Gig Harbor, and Pierce County Councilman Terry Lee have expressed interest in using solar power to light the bridge.

Lantz said she is not convinced by the Transportation Department’s conclusion that solar is impractical.

“Why do we always say no before we get to yes?” she asked. “We need to start with yes before we get to no.”

Rob Carson, The News Tribune