Utah’s “Giant Flowers”


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

An Infinite Scream Passing Through Nature



Smokestacks of the PNM San Juan Generating Station, near Farmington, NM, behind a lattice tower electrical power transmission line that carries electricity generated here to America’s power grid. The San Juan Power Plant, the Four Corners Generating Station, and accompanying coal mines have a long history of pollution and controversy. Although the Republican Party may desire to re-frame the discussion about coal as a “clean” energy fuel (stating such in their latest policy platform without a single question), the facts of the matter say the opposite- coal kills through “dirty” pollution in many ways: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-coal-kills/.

What does it mean to derive electricity that we use, including myself, from fossil fuel deposits?  I’ve often thought about this question.  I’ve thought about it singularly, as in, using fossil fuels alone.  I’ve thought about it comparatively, as in, compared to other, renewable, sources of energy.  I’ve thought about it historically, presently, and futuristically.  I’ve thought about it fatalistically, whimsically, and deterministically.   There are many ways to consider humanity’s love affair with Earth-extracted energy sources.

This time, I’m considering the question artistically.  Now, I’m certainly no art expert, but I enjoy art.  As a photographer, I make artistic decisions constantly in producing an image.  So there come times when artistic comparisons come to mind while photographing or writing, as here, about my photographic subjects.  So while researching the story behind my set of images on the subject of the San Juan Generating Station and the Four Corners Power Plant, on opposing sides of Highway 64 in northwestern New Mexico near Farmington, and knowing of other area fossil fuel problems, the impression that research led to was Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.”

What led to this disturbing image of a virtually genderless figure writhing in a screaming agony at the edge of nature?  When I read what the artist wrote about his own inspiration for this image, I couldn’t help but feel as if, after my research, I felt the same about the views I’ve seen in these images.  That view? A mental image, or video, if you will, of the “cradle to grave,” or “life-cycle,” of the coal that fires the boilers of these two power plants.  When I read this…

“I was walking along the road with two friends – the sun went down – I felt a gust of melancholy – suddenly the sky turned a bloody red. I stopped, leaned against the railing, tired to death – as the flaming skies hung like blood and sword over the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends went on – I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I felt a vast infinite scream through nature.” –BBC, accessed 7/29/2016.

…a passage from Munch’s diary on 1/22/1892, I, too, felt that vast (great, or other translations exist) infinite scream through modern nature.

And it all begins with us.  “We” start by mining for coal, extract it from the earth, pile it in a series of stages in preparation for transit, load it into a train, drop it at a power plant, shove it onto a conveyor belt, pulverize it, atomize it, and burn it.  But that is not the death of extracted coal.  This was just the scarring cut into nature that becomes a legacy liability, the initial scream of nature’s shock, thundering through a supercritical furnace.

Only after that momentary burn, the split-second flame of the coal particles when we humans derive our intended use of heat from this matter, does the plummeting abyss of an “infinite scream through nature” curdle through the ages.  Coal is matter, made up from star dust, just like you and me, so coal is bound by the law of conservation of mass, whereby the billions of global tons of coal going into power plants come out as equally billions of tons of atmospheric gasses, particles, wastewater, or ash.  Once those atomized coal particles have released their flamed energy as heat, which boiled the water into pressurized steam that turned the turbine generator to create electricity, our centuries-old technology, then the re-organized matter, – ash and gasses – get processed through the coal plant’s regulated inner-workings to separate out the various “waste.”


The PNM San Juan Generating Station was partially closed in a December 2015 decision. “Under the final agreement reached last month, two of the plant’s four units will be retrofitted with emission-reduction technology, and the remaining two units will be retired by the end of 2017. Doing so will bring the plant into compliance with a host of federal air standards, including the Clean Power Plan, which targets greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.” -Inside Climate News, accessed 7/29/2016 (https://insideclimatenews.org/news/27012016/new-mexico-coal-plant-partial-shutdown-san-juan-generating-station-pnm).

The scream bellows through the smokestacks of the plant into the sky as carbon dioxide, mercury, sulfur, and many other particles, mixing with other particles in the environment to create carbonic acid, methylmercury, sulfuric acid, and others.  The scream aches through ash piles that are landfilled nearby, with the potential and actual examples of screaming coal ash waste breaking through barriers and laying waste to communities and rivers, if it doesn’t simply whimper a poisonous scream as a toxic leak into the groundwater below where it is stored.  The scream flows out of the plant’s pipelines of hot water into nearby lakes and streams as selenium toxicity, among many other potential poisons.

The infinite scream of coal passing through nature becomes compounded by the screaming echoes of poisons in our environment, from greenhouse gasses from the coal mine methane released during mining, to the carbon dioxide that circles the planet through the atmosphere, and often mirrors the “bloody red” smoggy sky of Munch’s masterpiece.

002_3481 & 002_3494

Sandra Lasso casts her line to fish in Morgan Lake, a reservoir built to supply water to the APS Four Corners Power Plant (background), and a fish already caught and preserved alive on a line in the water. Although a sign at one entrance to the reservoir says “no swimming allowed,” that doesn’t stop people from fishing. Families like Sandra’s, with mother Claudia Westerbeek, Godfather Orlando Flores, and children William and Natalia Montes all having an otherwise nice day at the lake, are completely unaware of the hazards posed by the power plant. “According to the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory, the Four Corners Steam Electric Station is the fourth-highest producer of toxins in the state.” – “Santa Fe Reporter, accessed 7/29/2016 (http://www.sfreporter.com/santafe/article-11363-saying-no-to-coal.html#sthash.6SELRi4b.dpuf).

The infinite scream of coal poisons pass through water locally, into the biosphere and bio-accumulates, even bio-magnifying through multiple flora and fauna, including you and mewith dire consequences, and continues running downstream into ever-larger bodies of water.  In fact, the infinity symbol itself is closed as the scream of carbon and mercury in the sky are absorbed and deposited into otherwise distant and isolated oceans, lakes, rivers, and forests, and intermingling with the land and water-based screams of pollution saturated from below.  A chorus of infinite screams.  These return again to the sky through warm seas generating hurricanes, or burning forests returning mercury and carbon to the sky.

And the infinite scream also sits there, bottled, in a heap of coal ash, waiting for a barrier weakness to release its wail.  Forever.  Coal has no grave.  Coal is the zombie we created to roam the planet indefinitely in its many burned forms.

No amount of “scrubbers” or “bag houses” can completely muffle this scream through nature, because no current technology muffles all pollution streaming out of a fossil-fueled power plant.  Though, to end the scream, many try using the Judicial system to find an end.  I’ll bet every trembling child, adult, and senior with asthma or other respiratory ailments caused by these power plants feel the “blood and sword” of the “flaming skies” with every wheezing, painful, tired to death, and anxiety-ridden breath.

Munch’s melancholy is our reality, if you pay attention to the screams of coal, or any non-renewable energy source, through nature, through us.  We become the unidentifiable, the afflicted, the forever-changed figure in his masterpiece, if you hear the scream and know your place in what we’re doing to nature 24 hours a day as these coal-fired power plants operate.  Or you could be the ambivalent, un-hearing, oblivious background figures walking along and enjoying a pretty sunset as you play Pokemon Go on your coal-fired cell phone.


For the full gallery of images from the Farmington, NM area power plants and coal mines, go to Climate Photography.

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.