Bridge lights save two kinds of green
Willamette Light Brigade and utility efficiently light spans
It's a chill March night, but one side of the Morrison Bridge, which spans the Willamette River downtown, is bathed in a warm, reddish glow. The opposite side, facing north, is newly decorated in bursts of electric blue that stair-step upward from two directions.
None of it has much effect on a tall heron standing motionless at the river's edge, but the vibrant lights have made a visible change in the downtown cityscape, and all of it is green.
Last month, Multnomah County, a volunteer group called Willamette Light Brigade, and the utility Pacific Power unveiled the new look, part of a plan to light four downtown bridges using energy efficient practices and technology.
'The energy they're using right now to light the lights is green energy,' says Bekki Witt of Pacific Power.
And, she says, 'they look pretty cool.'
The new lights represent the first stage of the Legacy Project sought by former Mayor Vera Katz at the end of the millennium.
Willamette Light Brigade, an organization formed for the purpose, had a master plan to design and implement new lighting for the Hawthorne, Morrison, Burnside and Broadway bridges.
Witt says Katz saw the bridges as unifying symbols, connecting Portland's east and west sides. But an economic downturn and an energy crunch earlier this decade put the plan on hold.
'Mayor Katz couldn't see lighting up bridges when everybody's electric bill was going up 40 percent,' says Jim Benya, a member of the Light Brigade who served as technical adviser to the new project. A lighting designer from West Linn, Benya says the project did not began in earnest until just over a year ago.
The Light Brigade, which takes responsibility for the project's funding, went looking for a partner in Pacific Power, the utility that provides power for six Western states, including Oregon.
'We went to Pacific Power and said, 'This is really a great way of showing what you're about,' ' says Paddy Tillett, chairman of the Light Brigade. 'It showcases that you can do more with less.'
The utility provided $50,000 worth of sponsorship, money that financed most of the work and a year's worth of power.
'The Morrison Bridge lights are not even hooked up to our system,' says Witt, whose company splits the Portland power market with Portland General Electric. 'We looked beyond who actually served the bridge. It's part of our business model. We want to promote energy efficiency.'
Witt says Pacific Power has funded other programs around the state designed to create similar efficiencies, including a parking structure in Bend powered by solar energy and a solar array at the municipal airport in Redmond.
'Energy efficiency and renewable energy is huge for us,' she says. 'We're not necessarily getting any financial gain out of it. We've heard from customers, 'Yes, we want to see renewable energy.' We're in the Northwest. We know we've got a lot of environmentally conscious people here.'
Colors come easy
Benya, whose company Benya Lighting Design lit up the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, says the Morrison Bridge project involved replacing 16 1,000-watt metal halide floodlights attached to the pier facing with 32 light-emitting diode fixtures on pivoting brackets.
Fixtures, timers and bracket fabrication were paid for by Pacific Power's seed money.
The new, computerized system can project all kinds of hues onto the bridge without a worker having to go over the side with colored gels, reducing maintenance costs significantly
Moreover, Witt says, the fixture life went from 12,500 hours to 100,000 hours. She says lighting the bridge for a year with the new lights requires 6,170 kilowatt hours, a sixfold decrease in energy use and little more than half of what it takes to power one home for a year.
She says the reduced energy usage accounts for a savings of 14,000 pounds of spent carbon dioxide annually, the equivalent of planting nearly 3 acres of trees or not driving 15,000 miles.
'I think the estimated operating and maintenance cost is about $1,350 a year, and $600 of that is for power,' says Multnomah County Commissioner Maria Rojo de Steffey. 'That's a significant savings.'
She says it's harder to put a number on the aesthetic gain. 'They're so beautiful,' she says. 'It adds to the ambience of the city. Isn't it cool?'
Now it's Burnside's turn
What's extra cool for local governments and taxpayers is that the project, apart from some labor expenditures, has cost the city and county virtually nothing. 'This is a totally private project,' Rojo de Steffey says.
Members of the Light Brigade have no problem with that.
'Lighting bridges is an expensive undertaking,' Benya says. 'There's a lot of other priorities. Lighting bridges for fun is something communities will undertake to do. It's a wonderful opportunity for the community to find a way to support it.'
Yet Benya, who calls lighting 'the jewelry of architecture,' says there is a tangible gain in what might strike some as a vanity project.
'We think it calls attention to Portland's beautiful bridges,' he says. 'It gets people to take a second look.'
Tillett, who is with the architectural firm Zimmer, Gunsul, Frasca Partnership, says putting the bridges on the radar of Portlanders can only create support for their preservation. And they are worth preserving, he says.
'The project really is motivated by civic pride more than anything else,' he says.
Having completed the Morrison Bridge, the Light Brigade next will target the Burnside Bridge, for which the organization must raise $200,000, several times what it cost to upgrade the Morrison.
'In many respects, the Burnside is the most important one,' Tillett says. 'It's really the middle of everything. We have a fabulous project for that. All of the engineering and the permitting is in process.'
Benya says the lighting scheme, designed by Ed Slavin at the Portland firm Northern Illumination Co., will be 'more architectural,' in keeping with the structure's august profile. Opened in 1926, the bridge features decorative metal railings and Italianate Renaissance-style towers.
'We want to light the architecture and the mechanicals in a way that really shows them off,' Tillett says. 'We're going to make a run at it.'
All Tillett and his brigade need, it would seem, is the green light.