You’ll probably interpret this picture one of two ways

This farmstead sits just southeast of Center, with a pretty close view of the power plant to the east. Hat tip goes to my friend Cathy who spotted it and described its location for me to find. I haven’t had much time to go exploring the old section line roads these days, but hopefully I’ll get more time over the summer now that we’re not in a flood fight.

On one hand, a person could look at this photo with disdain and lament the loss of a family farm. Understandable, but in this case I like to consider the progress of North Dakota’s energy industry, one I’ve loved to champion for many years now. We have abundant resources and the ingenuity to brainstorm new ways to use them more wisely and cleanly. If you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward (or so they say).

North Dakota adds ten new coal-powered cars to its state fleet

The state fleet grew by ten this week as the DOT purchased several Chevy Volts. These are electric cars with a range of about 40 miles, so I don’t think anyone will be running from Bismarck to Fargo (or Minot, or Glen Ullin for that matter) with them without kicking in the backup gas-powered generator. I wonder if they’ll make interesting little git-around-town vehicles. They’re going to be distributed around the state to the eight motor pool regions for state employees to use on official business. GM has suffered dismal failure in trying to convince the general public to buy these things, so I hope the state was able to leverage a sweet deal before spending our tax dollars on them.

If you sense apprehension in my words, don’t get me wrong. I’m not fundamentally opposed to electric cars; I think it’s a good idea to explore new technologies. After all, the “brick” cellular phone of the 90’s had to precede the smartphones of today. What I do oppose are any simpletons who claim they’re “saving the Earth” by purchasing one. Apparently people like that think their outlets are juiced by the Electricity Fairy or something. Let’s face it: these things are NOT going to be charged by windmills or solar panels…period. Thankfully I don’t get the impression that anyone at the state is making any of these pie-in-the-sky claims. This isn’t the first set of electric vehicles to frequent the capitol; there are still some GEM electric vehicles in use as well.

All “saving the planet” BS aside, I don’t know if I see these things as nearly as big a boondoggle as the state’s fascination with ethanol blended fuels. Those are a sure-fire loser, with less thermodynamic potential than gasoline, propped up by taxpayer subsidies in a perverse shell game, while wreaking havoc on the food market. These cars are drawing power from North Dakota lignite-fired power plants, and we can be quite proud of that. I just try not to think of the fact that each one of these cars may already have as much as $250,000 in taxpayer money already subsidizing it.

The most expensive way to NOT make a difference

The wind farms popping up around North Dakota are the bane of the photographer. They spoil fantastic views of pristine landscapes, often sitting idle while they do so. I agree with much of Dennis Stillings says in one of articles about these “Prairie Pinwheels”. Many of his works published in the Dakota Beacon Magazine.

The machine pictured above, visible on the west side of Highway 83 as you approach Minot, has sat broken for many weeks. I think it’s a pretty good picture of the dependability of wind power. When there’s not enough wind, they don’t function. When there’s too much wind, they don’t function. When they do, they put the hippies in a quandary when they start killing birds in the name of being “Green™.” Oh yeah…and they’re LOUD.

I “re-appropriated” the title of this post from the folks at Envirogy, a website which has collected a number of studies dispelling the myth of wind power as a panacea. In fact, the opposite could be demonstrated to be true. Compiling studies from places such as, they are able to point out the flaws in the utopian view of impact-free windmills churning peacefully across the fruited plane, freeing us from the shackles of evil corporations. Take a look at this article and the studies linked therein.

When life gives you lemons, you of course make lemonade…but don’t dare let your little kids sell it, or the government will shut them down for not having a pile of required licenses and permits. In the case of the wind towers, however, there are occasionally some photographic opportunities. This is one of them. I spotted it several evenings ago when I happened to be in the right place at the right time, which for me is a large chunk of photography’s appeal. I had to maneuver a little bit to get to the right position, but things aligned themselves almost automatically.

There you have it, the musings of someone who doesn’t drink the “renewable energy” Kool-Aid, some web links to provide a little weekend reading, and of course another windmill photo of sorts. Have a great weekend!

North Dakota’s energy secret: rainbows

I had an amazing photo trip to Lake Sakakawea with my little boys this weekend, and on the way back a nice rainstorm blew through. It hit while we were enjoying some fantastic burgers at Burger Stop in Riverdale. As it slowly worked its way east it provided us with a nice double rainbow which was visible almost all the way home. It also revealed an interesting secret about North Dakota’s energy industry.

Here’s where the rainbows are mined, along Highway 200 east of Underwood. Chief Ironsides, the twelve million pound dragline, scrapes away the overburden to reveal the magical colors. Free to escape, they soar into the sky, ready to arc down to the next step in North Dakota’s energy production.

Coal Creek Station, pictured here, catches the rainbows upon arrival and uses them to generate electricity for thousands of homes and businesses. The rainbows are focused through a magic prism that recombines the colors in two boilers, each large enough to fit the state capitol building inside, and generate steam. That steam is forced through a pair of turbines that spin and generate electricity.

Come to think of it, that all reminds me of this fun little political ad that came out a year or two ago. It too makes light of “rainbow energy”. The sound effect at the end is cute.

Back to our little photo trip. Naturally, when you drive a couple of hours with toddlers in the truck, someone’s going to have to pee. Yep…that time came as we were about to roll into Wilton. We stopped for the potty break, got back in the truck, and were about to head home when I hopped back out to grab this one last shot facing north. Then it was time to go home for good.

Of course, halfway back to the Bizzo someone suddenly announced that they had to poop, but that’s a story for another time.

From our “stuff that no longer spins” department, part deux

If you’re like me, you found yourself four-wheeling through section line roads at 5am or so Saturday morning. I had the inclination to sneak in a quick photo jaunt before my family woke up, and there were some noteworthy events in the morning sky I wanted to pursue. While I didn’t see any planetary alignments as promised, I did find plenty of other neat things during my voyage. One of them was this broken wind turbine near Wilton.

For some reason one of the blades delaminated in spectacular fashion, making an enormous mess and putting this expensive piece of hardware out of commission. If the numbers I heard are correct, a blade replacement is about a $150,000 job. That’s presuming that there was no further damage due to its failure.

Sometimes when things fail they REALLY fail. That would be the case here. Rather than simply splitting down the middle, as I’ve seen before, this one appears to have shredded itself quite handily. Maybe that means it failed while rotating. Maybe it sustained wind damage after the failure. I’m not sure…all I know is that it is definitely “busted.”

Here’s the last time a blade failed at the Wilton/Regan area site. As you can see, the blade simply split in half and then collapsed under its own weight. There are no shredded chunks hanging like this most recent failure.

This reminds me: when this first failure occurred, a friend of mine who was incarcerated at the time said that a rumor was going around the state penitentiary in which a UFO struck the turbine. Yeah…not likely. In any case, I thought that was an entertaining conspiracy theory!

Something REALLY BIG happened this time last year

One thing I love about this business is being able to go where few are able. That was the case last January as I was on site for the move of the Falkirk Mine’s dragline “Chief Ironsides” from the west side of Highway 83 to the east side.

Weather delayed things a bit, but we finally got going just before sunset. That made for some challenges with shooting video. Stills are one thing in low light, but HD video is another. The main shot I was set up for was a time lapse of the roadway crossing, and the light was changing on me very quickly.

It was quite dark by the time the thirteen million pound behemoth, controlled by a woman named Melody, crossed the road. There was a thick dirt road constructed across Highway 83 just for this purpose, since the dragline needs a level deck for moving. It also protected the highway from the immense weight of the machine.

I froze myself silly, but I got the shots. I had one HD camera doing the 1080p time lapse while I ran around getting other angles and video footage with a second HD camera. Of course I kept my trusty still camera bag with me at all times. It was something I’d looked forward to seeing for a long, long time…but I was also quite glad to be out of that wind and cold!

Yeah, they work nights

On my way home from an afternoon-evening photography trip, I saw something from Highway 83 that had me whipping the truck around and bolting down some gravel roads. I have a hiking model GPS and maps that show me section line roads and fun stuff like that, so I enjoy a good gravel road adventure. I was able to get very close to this site: a wind turbine whose blades were being unloaded from the transporters.

It was actually very windy, so I’m surprised I got nice clear shots. I’m also surprised that the crane operator could be as smooth as he was, given the fact that he’s lifting an eighty foot piece of carbon fiber that’s designed to catch wind. If the operator is a she, my apologies.

It’ll always be the tallest manmade object in my heart

While on the notorious Cold War Mancation™ we made a brief stop at one of North Dakota’s largest landmarks: the KVLY TV tower near Blanchard. If you know what you are looking for, you can actually see this tower from Interstate 94. You can also see its counterpart, the KXJB TV tower, which is relatively nearby and only three feet shorter.

I am no longer employed by the company that owns and/or operates these towers, but I do get to work with them from time to time. It’s been years since I’ve been inside the big reinforced building that houses the transmitter for this beast. In fact, I had to find a new way to get here since the old gravel road is currently flooded. The last time I was here, there was a crew working hard to make some adjustments or repairs to the main transmitter and get it back online. At least they didn’t have to climb the tower!

This beast stands 2,063 feet tall. It has been the tallest manmade object in the world for years. At one time I believe a tower in Europe took the title, but sadly it was unable to bear the load and collapsed. The title then reverted to KVLY’s tower until the recent construction of the “Burj Khalifa” in Dubai. One could be nitpicky and point out that it’s the tallest manmade object in North America, or even in the free world.

By the way, there’s a tiny elevator about the size of a phone booth that goes up the center of this tower’s triangular structure…but not all the way. At some point, you’ve got to get out and climb. No thanks, I’ll just enjoy the view from below!

I could give you all kinds of amazing stats about the miles of supporting guy wires or million pounds of steel, but I think KVLY’s own website does a great job of that. While this tower gets all the glory, it is noteworthy to point out that the second tower, built by former rival and current sister station in the Valley News Live family, is merely three feet shorter. Not only does North Dakota hve the tallest manmade object outside of the oppressive Middle East, it’s got two of ’em.

It’ll always be the tallest manmade object in my heart

I had the luxury of a photo walk with my beloved wife this Saturday, and of course our choice was the Lewis & Clark walking trail on the Mandan side of the river. There is a trailhead at either end, and we chose to begin from the one in the Captain Leach area.

This end of the trail goes under the historic Northern Pacific and Grant Marsh bridges as it dips toward the bank of the river. There’s a good variety of foliage to be found along each of the trail’s two forks.

Of course, there are plenty of routes along the river that will provide scenic vistas. One can head north or south on 1804 or 1806, for instance. A nice drive up River Road and back around by Papa’s Pumpkin Patch could provide some breathtaking scenery and colors. Whatever your route, you’d better take it soon! It’ll be over before you anticipate.

Oh yeah…watch out for wildlife. This little guy was really mad at me. Some creatures just really don’t want to have their photo taken, I guess! He struck at me a couple of times, but thanks to the wonder of telephoto lenses I wasn’t close enough to hurt him. Nevertheless he felt cornered, and nobody likes that.