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.”
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.
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.