A giant cooling tower, known as Tower No. 5, remains from a power project near Elma, Wash., that failed in 1983.
A giant cooling tower, known as Tower No. 5, remains from a power project near Elma, Wash., that failed in 1983. Larry Abramson/NPR
In a series of 10 stories airing this week on Morning Edition and All Things Considered and published here on NPR.org, we examine the costs, the politics and other challenges of upgrading the country's electricity grid.
A ladder extends to the top of a 260-foot windmill at the Bigelow Wind Farm near The Dalles, Ore. Wind power is becoming more popular near windy sections of the Columbia River between Washington and Oregon.
A ladder extends to the top of a 260-foot windmill at the Bigelow Wind Farm near The Dalles, Ore. Wind power is becoming more popular near windy sections of the Columbia River between Washington and Oregon. Larry Abramson/NPR
Alyson Hurt and Andrew Prince/NPR
For an area possessed of great natural beauty, the Pacific Northwest is also a great dumping ground for really big toys — the titanic structures that have helped bring power to this region. Some still play an important role in keeping the lights on.
The Columbia River is punctuated by 14 huge dams that still generate electricity for the millions who live along its watershed, and as the region shifts to other sources of renewable energy, it's giving birth to new giants — awe-inspiring structures that will stare down at us for centuries.
In Elma, Wash., not far from Olympia, the evergreen forests are decorated with the legendary towers of the failed Washington Public Power Supply System, a politically stalemated project from 1983. Residential electrical bills from some local utilities still go to paying off the costs of the project, which remains the largest municipal bond failure in U.S. history. At the Satsop site, two giant cooling towers still stand unmolested, and a local community college, Centralia, occasionally uses one of these structures to host an energy conference.
Step inside Tower No. 5, and you immediately feel the cool breeze that funnels up 496 feet to the sky. Viewed through the opening at the top, the big northwestern sky seems impossibly distant and small. Clouds drift lazily in and out of view.
This amazing structure now stands pointless on the landscape. Despite efforts to build an industrial park on the surrounding site, the tower has no purpose, except as a tourist spot — an odd place to propose to your sweetie (it's happened), and a place to test the seemingly endless echo.
Given the fate of nuclear power in this country, it is common to read these modern pyramids as cautionary monuments — warnings against building too big. But around here, many really big machines function for decades, long after they have ceased to appear high tech.
On a slightly smaller scale, there's the huge Siemens breaker I saw at the Bonneville Power Administration. (If you're thinking of buying one as an art object, ask your dealer for a Siemens 72.5 kV SF6 sulfur hexafluoride power circuit breaker). It works like the circuit breaker in your basement, but it's a lot bigger and much noisier. In fact, when technicians go to fire off the breaker, they alert their colleagues with the warning, "Making a loud noise!" These things date back to the 1960s and look like they came from Dr. Zarkov's laboratory from Flash Gordon. With their gray glass bushings sticking out at right angles, they look strangely out of sync with the evolving calls for a "smart grid," but engineers say they still work just fine.
It is hard to top those cooling towers in term of sheer scale, but the latest entrants on the energy scene — the wind turbines — may take the prize for sheer grace and daring. The long-legged power flamingos are popping up like spring flowers on a hillside near you. I found mine at the Bigelow Wind Farm on the hills above the Columbia River, not far from The Dalles, Ore. If anyone asks you whether you'd like to climb to the top, please do. But be prepared — they rise 260 feet from ground level to the nacelle, or the hub of the wheel. And there's no elevator: You have to climb a ladder. It's like going straight up a regular house ladder for 25 minutes — your arms will begin to shake, but you are strapped in for safety. So if you lose your nerve or your strength, you aren't going anywhere.
From the top, your guide will ask you to poke your head out the little porthole window, and you will feel like you are emerging from some great spaceship. All around you, you can see orderly rows of machines, standing like dozing thoroughbreds. The tapered blades curve off into space and disappear into the mist.
In the next century or two, it seems likely we will switch from wind to fusion to the dilithium crystals of Star Trek, and these turbines may lose their purpose as well. Or they may simply join the brotherhood of really big toys littering the landscape.