Witnessing the Birth of a Climate Solution

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The public, yet somehow photo-banned, turnout facing the PacifiCorp Huntington Power Plant, along Utah Highway 31.

In one 24 hour period in May 2016, across two western states and over 650 miles, I saw three coal-fired power plants, one hydroelectric dam, a massive new solar farm project, and a unique solar plane called the Solar Impulse 2 that was on its way to completing a ’round-the-world trip without fuel for the first time in human history.  And I was driving an extended range electric vehicle, or EREV, the Chevy Volt. Now that’s a whirlwind energy tourism tour.

Granted, I wasn’t stopping to charge my EREV every EPA battery capacity rated 38 miles, but relying on the “extended range” technology that allows gasoline to generate electricity for the batteries.  Driving an electric vehicle across the country is comfortable and fun in a Volt, though I’m hopeful for the day when I’ll be fast-charging instead of refueling the battery.  But whereas some people use the Volt for 100% electric miles and only locally as a commuter car, I use the full design of the vehicle, and drive thousands of miles on single trips, as well as my local daily commute.

I began my day at sunrise at the Huntington coal-fired power plant, near Huntington, Utah, where I was visited by security who was curious about my photography.  This was a marked difference in behavior for security of the power plant, which had been attempting to stop me the previous day from photographing their properties.  Having left all that needless drama behind, I was making my way southwest to reach the Red Hills Renewables Park, near Parowan, UT, which made me feel much more optimistic for my day.

But before reaching my destination, and while stopping for one of those gas station breaks where I needed the food and facilities more than my high mpg car needed the fuel, I checked my email and noticed that one was from the Solar Impulse 2 team, notifying me via broadcast newsletter that they were launching for their next leg from Phoenix, AZ that night!

I calculated my luck, my odds of reaching it in time, and my plans for the day.  Could I drive over 500 miles and still hit my two pre-planned cross-country photo-targets I wanted?  In under 13 hours?  Google maps revealed it was a 10 hour drive.  “Well hell… that gives me three hours of ‘play’ time,” I remember thinking.  I’d have to drive without a wink of sleep, and arrive in the middle of the night, but I’ve put myself through worse driving conditions before.  And it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see a history-making event… why not go?!  I definitely felt that I would regret not at least making the effort.  I decided to do the full whirlwind tour: photograph a sea of mid-day solar panels in Parowan, then scream down southeast to Page, AZ to photograph the highly polluting Navajo Generating Station, as well as Lake Powell and Glen Canyon Dam if I could get there before dark, then bee-line it straight south to the Goodyear Airport in Phoenix to see the Solar Impulse 2.

I was worried I would drive the entire way there, be turned away at the entrance and not get to see the plane take off, so I contacted their media team via email.  Through a back-and-forth over email, I wasn’t given any assurance that I’d be given the required RSVP credentials to enter.  What the hell… go anyway, I told myself.  Once-in-a-lifetime, I told myself.  600 miles and 13 hours of driving and photography to go… sounds like an adventure!

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Red Hills Renewable Energy Park, Parowan, UT, looking north, just a small portion of the entire 630 acres array.

First stop: at Little Salt Lake, near Parowan, UT, there is a 104 MW photovoltaic (PV) solar array called the Red Hills Renewable Energy Park, owned by Scatec Solar and just six months old, having been completed in December, 2015.  To that point, it was the largest solar panel array I’d seen.  Very impressive at over 600 acres!  I was wishing that I had a drone camera to capture this massive spread across a portion of this valley, but lacking such, decided that the nearby rising hillside might provide a similar effect at a distance.  After abandoning my position fence-side and climbing onto the sides of my car to photograph the array without the fence in my frame, I gained some elevation south of the Park and was again impressed with this project’s size.  Certain lenses, even at this distance, couldn’t capture its breadth!

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Dr. Frankenstein’s backyard. A vision of 104 MW of electrons funneled from 340,000 solar panels across 630 acres through these wires at the Red Hills Renewable Energy Park, supplying energy for 18,500 households.

I also noticed it had it’s own substation that tied into one of the three cross-continental transmission lines skirting the project’s western edge.  Some of this infrastructure makes for interesting shapes and subjects to photograph.  One piece of the substation looks like a 1950’s vision of futuristic technology as a round sphere with spikes of wires exiting in different directions.  I have no idea what its function is, but it looks big, powerful, and cool.  And dangerous.

Okay… without property access and nobody immediately available to ask, plus a deadline, I decided to scoot (“shoot and scoot” being the theme for this day).  Hitting the road for Page without the ability to stop at a photographer’s whim was kind of painful with all kinds of mountain, canyon, and valley scenery flying-by.  But the payoff was on the approach to Page, across the red rock and desert valley, as the western sun began receding through the layers of Navajo Generating Station smog… everything was turning red… and the red rocks really start glowing when bathed in red light, and I was drenched in photographer’s golden hour awe bliss.

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The Navajo Generating Station (Salt River Project), near Page, UT. This 2,250 MW power plant provides power across the west, including making water run uphill through the Central Arizona Project. This plant is the single-largest emitter of carbon dioxide in America and currently permitted to run through 2044. Lake Powell, in the foreground, allows flatwater recreation and adds more power through the 1,320 MW Glen Canyon Dam.

But I didn’t have time to scout my locations, prioritize shots, or anything!  Thinking fast, I decided this would have to be a swoop-through shoot.  Stop at a distance on approach for the grand scene… shoot… scoot… get closer for a mid-valley scene at a tourist trap of a rest stop with an elevated view of Lake Powell with the power station in the distance… super-telephoto to pull in that plant in the distance with the water in the foreground, and soaked in red rocks and red sunset at its height… quick lens change for wide-angle to grab the entire scene, and all that wafting smog… scoot… drive to the Glen Canyon Dam… quickly determine I want several angles of shots, and do a couple of shoots on both sides of the bridge as the sunset waned… scoot… no time to drive closer to the power plant… gotta close the gap between Page and Phoenix through the dark… damn… can’t see the gorgeous red rocks along the way on this trip.  The glorious Navajo landscape fades, and I’m left imagining what I’m passing from prior trip memories.

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Dam blocking the river (rt), reservoir generating methane from decomposition (center, bottom), coal-fired Navajo Generating Station (center) polluting the visible sky with multiple emissions including carbon dioxide in massive amounts, coloring the sky with a technicolor sunset among red rock cliffs and a sagebrush sea. Hauntingly beautiful.  This is a similar vision to “The Scream.”

Stopping in Flagstaff for some much needed food and a break was refreshing.  I needed that, because I was really beginning to feel the miles, the darkness, and my sagging eyelids.  …on the road again… desirous of stopping at certain places for some spectacular astrophotography… damn… next time… fight the head-nodding sleep enemy with some boisterous loud music and road food… but I was also energized for what I was about to witness in a few hours.

I arrived in Phoenix somewhere between midnight and 1 am, and I managed to identify where the party was held at the airport.  I began seeing local T.V. news satellite trucks and people converging on one building as I approached, and upon entering, there was someone checking for tickets haphazardly as people flowed in without lines or order… I said I didn’t have one, and he let me through anyway… whew… glad I took the chance!

The plane was out of the hangar and on full display with the pilot, Bertrand Piccard, in the pilot’s seat already.  I discovered by talking with a few people in the crowd that the speeches were already done (damn, missed that), and they were prepping for take-off.  But I still had a two-hour wait for that to happen.  At this point, I was a bit delirious from so much driving and an early morning rise, but the energy of the crowd and the alertness of the seemingly dozens of workers kept me wakeful.

In hindsight, I wasn’t at the top of my game with regard to making great images in tough photographic conditions: artificial bronze-colored light at night with variable speeds of motion from people and the plane… widest aperture!… increase shutter speed!… who cares about white balance-figure that out later in post!… maximum ISO!… better to have higher noise than to make a bad shot with motion-blur!… test shot… adjust… test shot… my brain was shouting orders to my fingers that didn’t want to follow through with the camera in all cases because several of my shots, upon later inspection, aren’t to my usual exacting standards, and for the flight itself, there was no re-do, meaning planning ahead was necessary while waiting for go-time.  I decided to start with the 50mm for the runway shots during take-off, then switch to the 200-500mm for lofty distance shots.  And, at 3 am, after being awake and driving over 650 miles over 20+ waking hours, I think I even had trouble with making sure I was getting a decent focus.  Or maybe my bleary eyes thought it was focused when later they didn’t all come out as great as I normally want.

So I was a bit disappointed with my photographic results, but I was definitely thrilled with simply having made it there in one piece and not having driven off the road somewhere along the way.  I was witnessing history in the making.

Then, when you would have expected the crowd to shout cheers and a raucous calamity of celebration when the plane lifted off the runway, still at a distance not too short from the starting point, we were all silently transfixed!  Nobody had ever seen such a thing before!  It had the speed of a Wright Brother’s plane!  Incredible.

(Click on images above for full captions and large size view.  Note that these are low-res images, which degrades the image quality.  For higher-resolution images, see www.climatephotography.com.)

The experience of getting to see this experimental plane, lifting off the runway like a breath-lifted feather in the light desert warm air, silently gliding, almost hovering overhead, with a comparatively wide 747 anchored on the runway underneath, I was amazed at this feat.  This plane, carrying a single pilot, with a massively wide wingspan and seemingly heavy by the way multiple people man-handled it while manually taxiing down the runway, was simply floating aloft up there, making slow, wide circles to gain altitude before meandering eastward into the darkness.

Andre Borschberg states “To build an airplane of the size of a 747 with the weight of a car, something which was considered impossible by the aviation industry, we had to develop the right mindset in order to push the limits of the technologies.”  That includes, by the way, propulsion power equivalent to a couple of blow dryers to circumnavigate the globe.  If this is starting to sound a bit like that MacGuyver episode where he built a plane out of bamboo and garbage bags, you wouldn’t be far off from the creativity of these guys.  However, imagine MacGuyver with a massive budget, and access to the entire planet’s best technology to create this plane.

Fully charged, this plane’s batteries stored enough energy to fly at night, making enough room for the electrons to be refilled by the solar cells spread across the back of the massive, slender wings to refill by the next nightfall.  The propellers were very quiet.  In fact, I couldn’t even hear them beating the air.  That must have meant a low-friction, high efficiency.  What I did hear was what you might expect from an electric vehicle… you can even hear it faintly in my EREV/Volt… a faint electric whir.  Unmistakable, I heard it overhead.

This is history I’m witnessing, I thought at the time.  And it was.  A convergence of multiple clean, lightweight technologies and the spirit of human adventure of these two pilots, Bertrand Piccard, flying overhead, and Andre Borschberg, sharing the flying load in back-to-back legs across this planet of ours.  What does the future hold, I wondered?  Will we all be flying in battery-charged, solar planes someday?

This is history in the making in another way… the birth of a climate solution.  What scale in aviation might these technologies achieve?  Next, we’ll see solar unmanned drones by Facebook beaming WiFi to entire continents while staying aloft for months at a time, already in test flights.  Or Airbus’ Zephyr drones.  Or Google’s balloons.  I look forward to the Solar Impulse team’s future projects, already being planned.

This exhibition had completely enchanted the crowd of a couple hundred admirers, from children accompanied by parents, to paparazzi, to grandparents in wheelchairs.   We were all mesmerized at the graceful and vaguely manta ray-esque front profile of this flying wonder’s departure.  Its etherealness was enhanced by the backdrop of a star-studded night sky, twinkling up there, seemingly beckoning this quiet solar wing of humanity’s Icarusian whim and audaciousness.  But whereas Icarus’ wing wax melted and weakened from the sun, the Solar Impulse 2 wings soak in the warm photons and are strengthened.

That flight would end over 18 hours later, as planned, in Tulsa, OK.  Later, the round-the-world journey would end in Abu Dhabi, UAE, on July 26, 2016.

How far we’ve come, from digging out rocks and burning them for heat, to capturing electrons from the sky, and using them to fly.  And yet, I had just witnessed, in a single day, our guarded grip of a trusted and faithful coal-fired legacy, only to be amazed at the birth of new and innovative applications of existing technology.  The #futureisclean.

To view all related galleries for this whirlwind energy technology tour, see the Western States Energy Infrastructure set of galleries at Climate Photography.  Prints and downloads are available.

Utah’s “Giant Flowers”

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Latigo Wind Park near Monticello, Utah. The Latigo Wind Park, owned by sPower, completed construction in December 2015. These mountain-side turbines are monitored very carefully by two contracted biologists, who are networked with the individual tower operations and can slow or stop individual turbines in the Park at any time to prevent an eagle collision. On the day these images were made, contractors had just completed construction of two eagle watch towers for the biologists, who were operating from the grounds for five months, in the elements. These strategically-positioned towers give 360-degree views of the Park, and shelter to the biologists during the roughest winds and weather. Curtailing individual towers for Eagle safety does not significantly impact the operations of the entire project, and is becoming a common practice among wind turbine operators, among other technology uses for avian safety. Photos in this gallery are property released by sPower.

Driving through Monticello, Utah, approaching from the south and eastern flank up the long shoulder of an ancient mountain, Apajo Peak, over the years since the ’90’s when I would explore the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado, Shiprock in northwestern New Mexico, and north to Moab in eastern Utah, I came to get to know the landscape to the point that when you come around a corner, you have certain expectations.

On this trip, not having come through in over a year, my mind was blown away by the practically alien sight of giant white wind turbines in the unlikely location on the ridge line of a Utah (Utah!) mountainside.  After having just spent time photographing some of the most polluting coal mines and power facilities in the West, my mental state soared with the sight of this new, “clean” energy source.  (In reality, wind turbines could be considered one of the least “dirty” energy sources, because no energy source comes without some form of environmental impact- more on that later.  Still, wind turbines are nearly as clean as it gets!)

Wow!  Renewable energy is coming online so fast!  In a seemingly random and rural place like this!  In such a conservative state!  Screw my plans to spend a rest day in Moab, I’m hanging out in Monticello, Utah today!  First stop… find information at the tourist visitor center in town.  Other than as a pit stop, mining information from locals here was not very helpful.  The only person there when I arrived was ambivalent, when asked what she thought of the new turbines.  She said she didn’t care one way or the other.  Okay… and where is the rest room, I asked?

Just before leaving, another worker arrived at the desk, and I thought I would give another local a shot at my question.  “What do you think about the turbines?”  I was asked in reply, as if to gauge whether I was friend or foe before giving a real answer to my question.  Cautious and protective, I remember thinking of this second woman.  She had an opinion.  I proceeded…

“I think they’re great,” I told her.  I was sounding a little like Tony the Tiger.  But with my cheesy answer she confided that she thought they were beautiful, “they look like giant flowers,” she said excitedly!

Looking at the first woman, I could tell that her seemingly nonchalant and slightly prickly answer to my question earlier was, in fact, a learned response to her otherwise disapproving opinion of the turbines.  She was keeping the peace, and knew a negative response in the setting of a town visitor center was not setting the right mood for the town, so she chose to plead the 5th in her own way.

After chatting briefly, and finding out from the first woman that they were out of descriptive brochures about the turbines, I left with a refilled water bottle from their fountain.

Arriving at the facility, called the Latigo Wind Park, oddly named after a strap used on a horse’s saddle, and owned by a less than five year old company called sPower, based out of Salt Lake City, I drove up the mountainside on a dirt road that was freshly graded, wide, with vegetation-cleared shoulders, and angled for water runoff into ditches.

Everything was, indeed, new.  So new, in fact, that I never reached a gated entrance, security guard station, or any indication of any security whatsoever.  What a massive difference from the two coal-fired power stations I had just come from the day before, where one guard, when asked if there were plant tours offered, looked at me like my head turned into a black hole in front of his eyes, almost laughing in the lunacy, and said, “you can’t take photos here… I know another security guard got fired for allowing that.”  His demeanor switched to visible fear, if I persisted.  I felt pity on the man’s situation, with a Simpsons show Burns-esque overlord, apparently.

Not so, at Latigo Wind Park.  I drove up to a structure on an outcropping where there were some construction workers, and waited patiently outside my car to be approached as I watched them work.  The eldest worker of the three approached, and I not only learned that they were, that very moment, putting the finishing touches on a brand new eagle spotting tower, but that I was welcome to take all the pictures I wanted.  Wow!  Such openness.  Such transparency.  Such freedom.

Now, I’m familiar, having been raised in a National Park (Yosemite), that the public cannot be trusted with full-access to everything everywhere all the time – that there are always “bad apples” that ruin the “nice things” for everyone else, and that we, collectively, tend to “love things to death” with overuse, crowds, or otherwise.  So I promised to be careful and not get in anybody’s way.  It was explained to me that entering the premises comes with a falling hazard from the turbines if something malfunctioned.  Like a bolt the size of my head crushing my body flat.  The kind of thing that a plastic helmet just makes you feel comforted by wearing, not that it provides any protection whatsoever against said industrial-strength flying murderous bolts.  Again, being raised in a National Park with cliffs thousands of feet high and a child’s curiosity brings experience to know that a terminal velocity industrial sized bolt is probably not unlike a rock whizzing by my head while hiking on the side of Yosemite Valley’s cliffs… in either case, the object sounds like a bullet, and would have a worse effect on my body if it made contact.  (No such situation occurred at Latigo, of course.)

Okay… danger known and accepted.  Time to (carefully) explore.  Having seen the eagle watch tower up close, and witnessing one of the towers shutting down over a period of about a minute or so, the construction worker told me that there were two eagle biologists on-site, monitoring for collision hazard.  He pointed me in the right direction to find the lead biologist.

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One of two contracted biologists who monitor for eagles, shutting down any turbine that threatens to harm one. The red generator on the bottom-right powers the laptop on the truck’s hood on the left, while the biologist uses binoculars to spot eagles that are hunting nearby.

Finding her and introducing myself as a photographer, the lead biologist described to me how she does her job.  Out there in the field, running a gasoline generator buzzing against the softly-repetitive “whoosh” of the near turbine blades to power her laptop all day long, she pointed out the program that ties into the entire grid of the Latigo Wind Farm- she can shut down any turbine that has an eagle flying near it.  The company empowered her to be able to shut down turbines in one of two speeds.  I had witnessed a slow shutdown, which she said she regretted choosing and probably should have chosen a fast shutdown, which takes seconds, due to the close proximity of an eagle she saw nearby.

But that’s a subjective call with several factors involved, including the potential wear and tear of repeated fast shutdowns, since the engineers have apparently said that fast shutdowns don’t come without cause for concern over time.  But the eagle flew by unharmed in this case anyway (I didn’t notice it from my former position about a half-mile away).

Admirably, she has a goal of having zero (none!) eagle deaths by collision with the towers and spinning blades within the first year of operations.  Apparently, as of May, so-far-so-good, with the facility opening about six months earlier in December 2015.

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A maintenance truck gives perspective on the size of the wind turbine towers while a technician stands at the base entrance of the tower on the right. The Abajo Peak and Twin Peaks East mountains rise out of the southeastern Utah desert in the background, still snow-capped in May.

She described to me about how they work in the field, and that having two new shelters (she pointed out the second higher-up on the mountain side) would significantly improve their spotting ability and personal working conditions.  I agreed, knowing full-well how dangerous it can be to be working in the field during thunderstorms, let alone working around an electrical generating facility on the side of a mountain during an electrical storm.  She has a tough, hazardous job, while she is also constantly looking through a spotting scope or binoculars during long periods of time.  She described to me that she wanted the challenge of something new, because she normally did baseline scientific studies of energy facilities before anything was constructed.  She wanted to see how it all works after the facility was built, and decided to work for the first year to protect eagles.

Seeing a couple of trucks filled with engineers/maintenance workers pass by, I decided to drive up the mountain for some new angles on the turbines.  Exiting that branch road of turbines later, I reached the only closed gate in my entire time there- the guys in the trucks must have closed the ranch-style gate behind them.  But it wasn’t locked, and I continued on my way, closing it behind me.  I explored the entire road system on the property, and knew full well that this kind of industrial development didn’t come without other impacts than just avian collisions- the roads bulldozed through the area were fragmenting habitats, disturbing hydrology and surface runoff water quality, as well as potentially introducing non-native species through seed dispersal and new animal pathways.  But no form of human activity comes without an impact to the environment we are in.  Not even a hiking trail.

So any discussion of energy infrastructure comes also with a discussion of levels of “acceptable” impacts.  The federal government, via the U.S. Fish and Wildlife, will permit a certain number of eagle deaths, called “takings,” per year of operating wind turbines.  Similarly, air and water quality agencies from local to state to federal will issue permits to allow coal plants to pour pollution, toxins, known poisons, into our atmosphere and waterways.  Nothing comes without an environmental cost.  The common theme among all forms of energy development is: what level of impact is acceptable, putting numbers on that impact, monitoring and measuring real-world impacts, and striving to not exceed an either scientifically determined limit, usually based on the rhyming mnemonic “the solution to pollution is dilution,” or an arbitrarily decided limit.

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Two Latigo wind turbines frame the La Sal mountain range, with desert red rock below. The second eagle observatory station is seen on the near ridge line to far left.

Whatever the limit set for the number of eagle deaths permitted for the Latigo Wind Park, I like that they are striving to have a zero-hit figure by the end of the first year, the most important, for migrating eagles to learn about the new facility, and hopefully every year in operation thereafter.

If humans must have electricity, then it shouldn’t come at any cost, as is the consequence of the “infinite scream passing through nature” that coal’s legacy leaves behind.  Renewable electricity, even with it’s relatively low-impact costs, is a comparatively immensely better option.  Domesticated cats, power poles, buildings, and vehicles are higher causes of bird mortality than wind turbines, by a wide margin, for examples.  I hope for many more wind parks like Latigo’s, and I am always ever-grateful to the engineers and biologists who are making them less and less mortal to birds, bats, and other hazards that they present.

The dusk of coal is here, as the bankruptcies, regulations, and lawsuits increase – shutting them down, while the dawn of wind begins, as their electricity prices plummet, and new wind farms, parks, and facilities crop-up like flowers in all sorts of new, unexpected locales.  Like Monticello, Utah.

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If you go: I recommend staying on roads identified as public, and respecting any signs and road closures that may have been put in place after my visit during their first  months of operations.  I notified sPower of my visit to their properties after my visit, in addition to first obtaining verbal permission by on-site staff that could be located, and later obtained ex post facto written permission to enter onto and photograph their property after two months of contract negotiations.

Over 40 selected images from the Latigo Wind Park are available for prints or license downloads for personal, business, and editorial uses at Climate Photography, with hundreds more to choose from by request.  These images come with a copy of a fully-executed property release form from sPower.

7,863 miles, 6,729 Photos, 11 Western States, 1 Big Smile

Points and labels on map are artifacts of Google’s mapping system, not indicative of documented stops.

Earlier this year, I was invited to a relative’s college graduation ceremony in California.  Honored to be invited, proud of my cousin’s accomplishment, and eager to make a photography trip out of the opportunity, I hit the road in early May through mid-June with an agenda: photograph America’s western energy infrastructure.

Including my original destination of familial celebration, the entire trip was nearly 8,500 miles on the road, over six weeks, or 7,863 photography miles.  My prior-longest photography road trip a couple years ago, anchored by a cousin’s wedding in California, was a total of just 4,445 miles.  Both trips originating in my adopted state of Colorado.

My desired outcome with this latest trip was to photograph a diversity of methods that America uses to generate electricity across the Western States.  Of course, there’s an incredible amount of beauty to be seen along the way, so I couldn’t pass up other opportunities as well.

In the south, traditional coal, and newer solar and wind projects were plentiful.  California has some legacy wind turbines, small 100 kWh lattice-tower turbines, which are being replaced with large, new 1-3 MWh turbines, an activity called “repowering.”  Northern states have an abundance of hydroelectric power, of course, some of which have been or are slated to be decommissioned and removed, but there are also biomass plants that generate electricity from the trees of the forest.

Energy infrastructure in these images are labeled as either contributing to climate change (#ThisIsClimateChange), or contributing to solutions (#SignOfClimateProgress).

From what I envisioned for this journey, I thankfully fulfilled my goals.  There was but one major surprise along the way, however.  Security and law enforcement in America are walking on the eggshells of terrorism.  They’re on high alert.  Their vigilance borders paranoia by my observation, but was also rote, with one security guard almost comically asking me point blank when I introduced myself as a photographer intending to photograph their power plant, “you’re not a terrorist, are you?”  When I said “no,” with a bit of disgust for the state of the world, I half-expected him to check a box on a clip board at his security desk… “Ο Terrorist ⊗ Not a Terrorist.”

Coal has a long history in Carbon and Emery Counties in Utah. These photographs tell a story of the families who have experienced tragedies over the past century or more, as written on the plaques adorning the coal miner memorial in the center of the town of Price. With truckers buzzing through county roads and highways so frequently that a road-side pause makes one immediately wonder where these identical trucks are from, where they're going, and what they're carrying. Visible from the main roads, the power plants are easily identifiable, with tons of coal offloaded frequently. However, just the impending threat of stricter emissions controls on coal fuel caused one coal owner to decommission the Carbon Plant, as this Salt Lake City article shares: http://archive.sltrib.com/story.php?ref=/sltrib/news/56919729-78/coal-power-carbon-plant.html.csp.

#ThisIsClimateChange. Coal has a long history in Carbon and Emery Counties in Utah. These photographs tell a story of the families who have experienced tragedies over the past century or more, as written on the plaques adorning the coal miner memorial in the center of the town of Price. With truckers buzzing through county roads and highways so frequently that a road-side pause makes one immediately wonder where these identical trucks are from, where they’re going, and what they’re carrying. Visible from the main roads, the power plants are easily identifiable, with tons of coal offloaded frequently.
However, just the impending threat of stricter emissions controls on coal fuel caused one coal owner to decommission the Carbon Plant, as this The Salt Lake Tribune article shares.

Just taking photographs near a power station drew not only the attention of security, but in some cases resulted in reports from passersby to security or law enforcement.  More than once did I have to explain that I was simply a photographer making images of western America’s energy infrastructure.  One time I heard, over my shoulder as I was shooting, a security guard ask a plant worker if he’d ever heard of anyone taking pictures of power plants while travelling, and, happily, the worker said, “sure, I do sometimes.”

However, my highlight of interactions with security was at the Huntington coal-fired power plant in Emery County, Utah.  I had already been notified by security at the nearby Hunter plant that I wasn’t welcome.  Aside from terrorism concerns, apparently Sierra Club had recently been taking photos and there was a lawsuit by them against the power company.  I was repeatedly told that it was against company policy to allow any photography whatsoever.

So I persisted, but near the Huntington plant instead, and was well-distant from any private property.  Someone passing by reported me to plant security, who patrolled down the hill to my location.  Aside from, again, being told I couldn’t take photos of their power plant, and reminding them that I was on public land and had every right to photograph from there, the dispatch on the radio said to hold me there while someone from the plant was on his way to meet us.  Having gotten the photos I wanted, I told the security guard I had what I needed, and I was going to be on my way, and did.

It turned out that the night shift supervisor wanted to talk to me, and tracked me down at the only open business in nearby Huntington that late at night (I was there for night photography of their plant towers with the moon centered between, image left), a convenience store gas station.  He let me know that my simple presence taking photos of their operations had caused “alarms” internally all the way up to the Vice President.

We had a good long conversation about several subjects related to climate change, right there in the parking lot.  Very civil, and open.  It was one of those conversations you wish the coal industry would have with the environmental movement all the time, given the active lawsuits using courts and attorneys as intermediaries.

Three other major highlights of the entire trip were: 1) making a mad dash to Phoenix with short notification by email, to see the Solar Impulse 2, a solar-powered plane making its way around the world, take off for Tulsa, OK, a once-in-a-lifetime experience, 2) happening upon a family of sea otters swimming, feeding, and playing in the Quillayute River near Rialto Beach, WA, and 3) seeing wolves in the wild for the first time, including a failed hunting attempt, in Yellowstone National Park, WY.

Wolf chasing Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep in Yellowstone.

A wolf (black, upper-right), chasing a herd of Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep across a steep ridge near its den in Yellowstone National Park, WY. This action took place over a mile away from the photographer.

Being able to have the freedom to travel across the country to openly photograph multi-billion dollar energy infrastructure facilities, whether fossil-fuel derived or renewable electricity, is a freedom that appears to be heavily monitored with a desire to be quashed.  Climate photography has its stories, and I’ll be sharing several from this trip over the coming weeks.

 

For access to the entire “Western States Energy Infrastructure” portfolio of galleries, go here.  Though thousands of pictures were made, only several hundred are shown.  Similarly, the thousands of smiles made on this trip can also be summarized as one big road trip smile.

#TrainToThePlane – Signs of Climate Progress

There will doubtlessly be all kinds of alliterative new names for the new RTD “University of Colorado A-Line,” serving the corridor between downtown Denver and the Denver International Airport.  I can think of a couple off the top of my head.  Eastbound, for flying out of state: the rail to bail (for those who feel trapped, and are fleeing the state for a vacation).  Westbound, for those visiting the state for any recreational purpose: the train to insane (Colorado definitely has a reputation for extreme sports).  However, the one that seems to be sticking is simply: #TrainToThePlane (seems like an eastbound moniker).

I’ve made a gallery of 50 images of RTD’s new A-Line train.

I hope you like them.

We all know the benefits of taking cars and trucks off the road in favor of transit options, though there are so many factors and variables involved, you’d have to do a “life-cycle study” to determine exact “cradle to grave” cost/benefit scenarios for each, then compare between modes of transportation.  The studies I’ve seen over the years can be dizzying if you’re not careful and you fall down the rabbit hole.  There are plenty of opinions on the matter, too:

Conclusion for rail to reduce atmospheric carbon:

“Even when you include, in addition to the tailpipe, the CO2 emissions from infrastructure, fuel production and the supply chain, on average rail will still have a lower carbon footprint than road travel, when comparing life-cycle to life-cycle.”

The Guardian, accessed 4/25/2016.

Conclusion against to reduce atmospheric carbon:

“So there it is: to benefit the environment, probably the best thing to do is be very skeptical about adding new transit service and even to discontinue some service we are currently providing (sorry, liberals). Simultaneously, we should raise fees and taxes for driving (apologies to you conservatives).”

Freakonomics, accessed 4/25/2016

Both types of arguments make very astute points throughout, and I don’t fault either opinion.  As with most arguments, however, they often focus variables to suit a narrow question, such as saving the environment, or narrower-still, the atmosphere.  There are other categories of inquiry, like safety, expense, or convenience.

So, when it comes to the “University of Colorado RTD A-Line,” I’ll leave up the analysis to the pros and each individual to decide.  After all, nobody is taking away the road to the Denver International Airport.  Having an additional option to travel with is ultimately a good thing, in a country based on choices.

As both of the above cited writings offer as observable factors to consider, I think it’s worth repeating that when a mode of transportation is based on a method of fuel that has the ability to, over time, get more efficient, or change source from dirty to clean, I would personally automatically choose this option.  Gasoline is that option if you’re comparing a vehicle fleet over time, and responsible legislation/law requires improvements in efficiency over a number of years (such as the CAFE standards that continue to be improved, themselves, over the years).  However, gasoline is a very large source of carbon for the atmosphere, and even the CAFE standards aren’t going to change that fact.  Better still, and similarly improved by legislation/law improvements over time, is electricity, and changing sources from dirty fossil fuels to clean renewables can take place much faster, supplying renewable electricity to both electric cars and trains.

The CU A-Line RTD rail option is electric, and Colorado’s renewable portfolio gets megawatts-better every year.  So this new rail line is likely a win for the environment, a win for safety for taking many vehicles off of the roads, a win for convenience for travel-weary luggage-schleppers, and, in a per-capita life-cycle analysis, might even come out cheaper.

Seeing this railway completed is definitely a sign of climate progress in Colorado.

This past weekend, the opening weekend for public use of the new service, I spent a couple of afternoons and evenings exploring the new A-Line’s territory, mostly along the Peña Boulevard section, and a bit at the historic, yet completely renovated downtown Denver Union Station.

Just so you know, you can set up a bazooka-looking Nikon 200-500mm lens on a tripod nearly just a stone’s throw from DIA’s runways on the side of the road without a peep from the heavy security driving by, but you can’t walk into Union Station and use a tripod (“normal” looking 24mm lens at the time) if the tripod touches the floor – and security will get persnickety with you about that if you try.

I hope you enjoy these 50 new photos I’ve uploaded at Climate Photography.