Seeing Energy

Tips compiled from participants in the CHE Place-Based Workshop at sites of energy production and consumption in Wisconsin and Illinois.

students posing in front of a nuclear power plant

In May 2010, CHE embarked on a Place-Based Workshop that explored sites of energy production and consumption in the Upper Midwest. The workshop spanned five days and was organized as a series of day trips to various energy facitilities, including coal, natural gas, hydropower, wind, and nuclear.

Along the way, the workshop looked at a home "off-the-grid," a new LEED-certified building on the UW-Madison campus, transmission infrastructure, and a pulp and paper mill that is Wisconsin's largest consumer of energy. All told, the workshop focused CHE's ecelctic perspectives on a single topic as few of our workshops have before.

Because energy sites are often unseen parts of the landscape, workshop participants were asked to consider various ways to "see energy" in various places. What follows is a collection of their insights, reflections, and suggestions about ways to see and understand energy in landscapes of the past and present.


Assess the Scale

Energy Can Be Concentrated Over Time or Space

piles of grain for biofurl

All power sources that we use to run human society are concentrations of energy. The longer a particular energy source has had to become concentrated, the more valuable and immediately usable it is as a fuel. Coal and natural gas that formed over millions of years are more easily used than bioenergy that grew over a few years or decades (e.g. corn ethanol or wood), which in turn is more easily used than wind and solar gathered on instant timescales. Furthermore, the less time an energy source has had to concentrate the more land area we have to dedicate to capturing it in order for it to be a usable fuel for society. So choosing among energy types means making tradeoffs not only between cost, pollution, and climate change impacts but also about how much of the landscape we want to designate towards energy production and transmission.

The Scale of Our Power System Challenges Our Intuitions

students looking at a distance coal plant

Too often, we make choices about energy based on what is right in front of us. However, the intuitions that result are almost always wrong – with energy we must think systematically. We must consider landscapes where we harvest fuels (like coal, uranium, trees, or corn), the renewability and availability of energy sources, and the costs of getting fuels to generators (via railroads, tankers, roads). We must evaluate the impacts of manufacturing power equipment -- such as turbines, transmission wires, and generators. We must weigh the challenges of building energy transmission infrastructure across different distances. We must recognize the effects of burning different fuels (e.g. discharges of hot water, air pollutants, mercury in waterways, tritium leaks, etc.) and of power production byproducts (e.g. storing radioactive waste or disposing of obsolete solar panels). Finally, we must remember the interconnectedness of our power grid and how the use of one energy source affects the use of others. Only by synthesizing all these issues can we properly consider our potential energy futures. Even then, there are no "right" answers - only different ways of valuing energy sources' safety, reliability, costs, and impacts.

Land Use and Scale

windmills in a field on a cloudy day

The contrast of land-use scale between a large wind farm and a nuclear power plant also left a strong impression on me. Generating only an eighth of the power of the Byron Nuclear Power Station, the still impressive collection of over one-hundred wind turbines in DeKalb seemed like a green, resourceful, though imposing structure. I was not convinced however that the turbines, whether claimed to be intrusive for noise, sight, or bird/bat migration patterns, were not worthwhile; to the contrary, I thought they were very cool. But, the enormous use of land and its unavoidable affect on those near it bolstered my support of a primarily nuclear-powered world, in the long term.

Point A to Point B

Look for the connections

man standing on a bridge

See those transmission lines running across the land? They form one of the key components of the system designed to transmit electricity, collectively called "the grid." Power in the form of electricity is something that is at the moment hard to capture and store and this evanescence means that timing is critical. Learning about when the different forms of electricity production happen, and what types of demand this production is meeting, helps illuminate the economics of and politics of electricity. Electricity has to travel, at near the speed of light, through a loosely connected system of power generators and transmission lines to consumers. How this system is currently linked has implications for what types of electricity are possible. Furthermore, upcoming transitions to more integrated grid systems, even so-called smart grids, have implications for cybersecurity, types and levels of pollution created during electricity production, equitable distribution of power, and so on. Transmission lines are also one part of the electrical system that are quite visible and offer even those who can't make it into a power plant a chance to reflect on the infrastructure for, and the consequences of, electricity use.

Think about the connections between water and power

hydro dam

Energy production is more dependent on the availability of water than we might imagine. Obviously, hydroelectric production facilities are directly dependent on water levels, but huge, steady amounts of water are also integral to much of the electrical production that fuels our way of life. Whether you are burning coal, natural gas and biofuel or maintaining a nuclear reaction, hot steam and cooling water play essential roles in the process. Because water availability changes through both natural cycles and shifts in human usage, it is possible to imagine a future where our decisions about energy production are strongly influenced by where water exists and how its uses are prioritized. Wind-generated electricity, for instance, despite its intermittency problems, could conceivably gain prominence in the future merely be requiring little water. Though they tend to be considered separately, the availability of water and availability of power are increasingly linked concerns.

Question the ease of electric power

copper wire

Most of the time, we experience the magic arrival of electric power divorced from all the side effects of its production—flick a switch and there it is, without smoke or sweat. Electric power is oddly abstract: when you turn on a lamp or plug in a laptop, miles of wire separate you from the power plants that are producing the energy you are using. It is easy to forget that somewhere nearby coal is burning or uranium is undergoing nuclear fission to generate the electricity that keeps the lights on. But ever since electric lighting began to transform the daily rhythms of work and leisure, electric power has shaped the way people experience the world with their senses. At the same time, the production of electricity pollutes and pumps out carbon dioxide on such a scale that it has changed the physical environment substantially. Although electricity can seem intangible, the history of electric power is a history of the senses.

Move the Parts, Connect the Dots

people inspecting parts at a power plant

A few summers ago, when the question of grad school was still in the air, I worked at a distribution warehouse for an energy company in southern Wisconsin. My job involved driving a huge cart around a warehouse where I'd pick items off the shelf and load them into wooden boxes. The boxes I assembled would then be shipped off to crews in the field (crews I never met), where workers would use the parts I had collected to put up or repair power lines and transformers. I had, as a result, a more intimate knowledge of those parts than arguably anyone on the trip. My memories are sensory: I know how heavy they are, I remember how they felt in my hands. Yet, despite my background, I realized on the trip that I had no idea how all these different parts connected. My pay check arrived if I put all the parts together in a box. My job never required me to ask questions beyond the basic ones: I never wondered how they all fit together, I never needed to know if my little crate was going to just one job or several jobs. A whole year of my life, moving things from here to there, never asked to connect the dots.

Human Energy

Bodies of knowledge

woman operating a control panel

The massive infrastructure that humans have created in order to plug in our cell phones, our toasters, and our laptops can be as difficult to comprehend as the root system of a mangrove forest. Behind each socket is a vast and intricate array of transmission lines, waterways, mining transport routes, pipes full of steam, fuels of many kinds, and people...People who are thinking about the air flow in buildings, the amount of BTUs you can get from different kinds of plants, the balance of electron movement on the grid or how to keep a nuclear facility safe. And there are people like Jerry from Columbia coal, an employee for 37 years, who walked us through the plant--over steel grate bridges 400 feet from the ground, past the massive boilers, and down to the inferno of the firebox. He knows the plant intimately--can hear and smell when something is wrong, and has wormed through tiny, dangerously hot tunnels when things need fixing. Or the woman in the paper mill, an employee for 15 years, who we met in the control room where the floor was constantly vibrating due to the vigorous pulp making process happening below us. She could tell by the vibrations if things were running smoothly. So many different kinds of knowledge go into these systems.

Networks are human too

woman operating a control panel

My father worked for Alliant Energy his whole life before moving to a new company a few years back. On a number of occasions during our tours of these facilities, smell, sounds, and textures brought back memories of my childhood. I remember, for instance, the noise of the house I lived in as a kid whenever dad would be called in to fix downed power line or broken water main. I'd hear him at the sink in the bathroom, the flow of water running through the home, the sound of him moving through the kitchen in heavy boots; the click of a light switch, his heavy sighs expressing fatigue at being dragged out of bed at some terrible hour in the morning. And the smell of his clothes when he'd inevitably come into my room and wish me a good day at school . It was like a routine those years. My mother said it the same way, be it four in the morning just after noon. She'd answer the phone and say, "It's work, Randy." How many days started this way? The massive systems that make our lives possible are run by people, ultimately. And these people are called upon at all hours, regardless of their personal situations at home. Yet we rarely think of huge systems in terms beyond numbers and measurements, dollars and cents, calories and watts. We should remember that these are human networks.

Focus on the employees

worker at large desk with many monitors in control room

Although power production is full of immense structures, dangerous processes and mind-blowing scales of materials use, what I found most striking was the attitudes of the workers on each site. Those who keep the plants running from day to day are full of an obvious energy and enthusiasm for their work. They demonstrate excitement about explaining the intricacies of the processes they run each day and the machines over which they have control. While spending time with employees of the coal-fired power plant or the nuclear power plant, I found myself recalling an interview with Matthew B. Crawford, author of Shop Class As Soulcraft. He emphasized the importance of working with one's hands for overall well-being, both physical and psychological. It occurs to me that those who keep our lights on may experience a fundamental satisfaction in their work that many Americans have lost-- a fulfillment stemming from creating tangible products that matter to a broad population.

Pay Attention to Culture

photo of a booklet titled Principles for a Strong Nuclear

Employees at the power generation facilities generally described their culture as highly, and necessarily, risk averse. At the same time, changes to the energy infrastructure on the scale proposed by legislation will require a great deal of innovation in the sector. It seems likely that risk-loving entrepreneurs will come into conflict with risk-averse utilities. Bridging the gap between these two will be important in order to effectively incorporate new technologies while maintaining standards of safety and reliability. Perhaps a more familiar divide is between regulators and the industry. While traditional state regulation may be more effective due to its advantage in system-wide planning, deregulation may allow greater innovation and lower prices. Another balance must be struck between those who prioritize economic growth, the environment, energy security, or something else entirely. One of the strengths of the CHE Workshop was bringing together people from multiple disciplines both within and outside of academia, allowing some perspective into the culture of each field. This type of exposure will be essential for establishment of a common language, setting mutually agreeable goals, and meeting these established targets.

Expect the Unexpected

Be shocked by the old

old control panel

Because large technological systems like our energy infrastructure are so massive and complex, they tend to have long lives. As you move through the landscape, ask yourself what era this technology hails from. Is it a nineteenth-century steam engine? A twentieth-century jet turbine? A 1910s electrical generator? A 1970s analog control panel? A twenty-first century piece of software? Be prepared to enter places that feel like they are out of another era, and to see a mix of technologies from many different periods. Consider how this system was assembled over time, and how it might be different now from when it was first constructed. What was here at the beginning, and what has been added or removed in the interim?

The vagaries of wind

sign in a yard that says No Wind Farm

Before participating in this workshop, I was an unequivocal supporter of wind power. What could be better than harvesting the elegant, carbon free, renewable gusts of power swirling around us? After this workshop, I am still a supporter of wind, but in a much more informed and tempered way. Before I had dismissed criticisms about the intermittency of wind as the nitpicking of naysayers. Now, understanding how the electrical grid functions, and how base and peak loads work, I realize the intermittency of wind is a significant engineering challenge. I also dismissed the howls of protest about windmills destroying the picturesque landscape. I still think many of these protests are overblown, but standing near an Illinois farmhouse just a few hundred yards away from a row of windmills, they certainly looked imposing. Likewise, I learned of the complaints about noise and "shadow flicker" - the strobe light effect of blades blocking the sun. The noise of the blades was not deafening, but if I lived in a previously serene rural area, the deep hum and high pitched squeal could be unnerving. I believe wind power will play a significant and important role in our future energy system. Supporters of wind, however, should be aware of the complexities, and grapple with what a wind farm would be like in their own backyard.

Water, water

steam plume and cooling lake

I expected the heat. And the noise, accompanied by jokes about wives who complained their husbands had on "power plant voices" when they got home from work. What I didn't expect was water; it was everywhere, essential to burning solid fuel and converting stored energy into flowing electrons. We stopped first at the Columbia coal plant's cooling pond which never freezes and was bathwater warm in May. The unearthly turquoise water of Excelon Nuclear Generating Station's spent fuel pools stared out at us from a photograph on the wall as we sat and listened to the mechanics of nuclear power. We followed huge pipes containing superheated, pressurized steam through the plants; steam that sends turbine blades spinning and then generators humming. After Columbia, the Prairie du Sac hydro station felt inside-out, as we walked feet above Lake Wisconsin and watched the feeding acrobatics of cliff swallows over the dam's waterfall.

Look for Color

different colored pipes in power plant

Energy can be more than just green. Ever wonder how anyone can keep track of all the different pipes that pump water and gas in and out of your lab or classroom? Builders often use colored pipes to denote a certain material or heat level. They even paint arrows that show the direction of flow. Power plants and industrial facilities use the same method. Because of this, the pipes and machines of natural gas power plants or ethanol plants can be orange or red or turquoise—these facilities are more colorful than you would expect. If you get the chance to visit the belly of a building or to see what is really in between the walls, use color to orient yourself to this new view of the flows of energy.

What do you bring with you?

warning sign reading safety glasses and hearing protection are required beyond this point

My father was a pipefitter/welder when I was growing up and he helped build power plants in the Midwest. The Byron nuclear generation station was one of those plants and when I was on the tours, I thought of my father often. When I first left my family home, I was already involved in anti-nuke politics. Most weekends I would travel with my friends to various protests and political rallies and voice our concerns over radioactive wastes and other issues related to nuclear energy. I definitely "showed up." When I would come home to visit my parents, I would park my truck in the driveway alongside my dad's truck and my anti-nuke bumper sticker would bookend the pro-nuke bumper sticker that he had on his bumper.

Going from site to site on the workshop, I've been educated in a way that only tactile interaction can provide. I've been struck by many things including how water is such a major ingredient to energy production, from use as a cooling agent and radiation diffuser to direct generation in hydroelectric dams. I've become intrigued by the role of chemistry in power production, especially as it is used in biofuel energy. I've been reminded of the importance of public involvement in the process of community decision-making and I've been in the awkward position of acknowledging that the same nuclear executives that I fiercely protested against also have a deep concern for the well being of the world.

In many ways, I don't think that my opinions are that drastically different from those that I held when I was in my late teens, but more and more I've come to appreciate the importance of "showing up" with a little knowledge under ones belt.

Machinery is Neat

Find the Machine Shop, Find the Mechanic

tool shop

As you move through the energy landscape, ask yourself, "who keeps this system running, and how?" Factories and generating stations are places where much of the machinery is custom-built rather than mass-produced, which means that they must be tended by people with an intimate knowledge of their workings and of how to make from scratch the pieces that constitute them. Look for signs of repair, maintenance, and modification -- tools large and small, machine shops, inspection tags -- for these are the artifacts and places that keep our technologial systems running. Find and talk to the people whose job it is to fix these machines and keep them in good working order. What kind of knowledge do they have of our energy system, and how is it different from the knowledge of the person in the control room, the government policymaker, the household consumer? How is this knowledge gained and passed on from one generation to the next? What would happen if no one were around to maintain this facility? How serious would the consequences be?

How Does it Work?

generators at hydro dam

The CHE place-based workshop was an excellent opportunity to fortify my theoretical understanding of power systems as I study for a Masters degree in Mechanical Engineer. Hand calculations, schematics, and computer models can only go so far. Seeing the layout of a hydroelectric plant's generation station (image #1, below), for instance, unexpectedly challenged what I had previously thought of as basic mechanics. The same was true of the intricacies of an industrial steam turbine-generator. We think of these technologies as ancient, and perhaps subconsciously couple that with simplicity. So, even before we considered the grid as a whole, the workshop reinvigorated my appreciation of how well we have come to design and carry out large-scale, complex, (now) socially-essential, machines.

Putting Energy in Place

Finding Place in the Placeless

man opening a boiler door

Some places can appear placeless, such as energy generating facilities, in the case of our story. While they inhabit large tracts of land, these aesthetically uninviting structures defy the conventional sense of place as they exist in an offensive disconnect with the natural environment. Yet, if you look at the abstract system, you may discover a sense of place in these facilities and their connected meanings. For many men and women, energy facilities provide meaning as their workplaces and community spaces. For every American, these facilities provide meaning as a source of their livelihoods. If you broaden your conceptual boundaries of place, these facilities also provide meaning as shadows of the landscapes from which we harvest the resources we convert to energy, from mountaintops to farmlands to rivers—landscapes that hold meaning all their own. A systems view of energy—from the mountaintop to the coal plant lunchroom—can help us find the place in the otherwise placeless. Perhaps seeing the places of energy can help us think more deeply about our relationship with it and consider if that is the relationship we really want.

Remember where you're standing


Energy is all around us -- but there are also specific reasons why certain aspects of our energy infrastructure are located where they are. When you visit an energy site, ask yourself why it was put here and not somewhere else. What aspects of this site -- geographical, environmental, political, cultural, economic -- made its originators decide that this would be the place? What factors came to bear on that decision, and who might have been opposed to it? Consider how the facility may have changed its surroundings, and how it relates to that landscape now. How far away are its effects felt? How do you feel standing next to it?

Backyards are complicated

cooling towers near power lines

We have grown to expect to hear pronouncements of "not in my backyard" from those opposed to the siting of a toxic waste site or dirty, dangerous, and/or unsightly power plant in their community. But the relationship between local residents and the industrial landscapes in their midst are often more varied and complicated than that. One's job, politics, or health might play a part in determining how he or she feels about living near a coal-burning power plant, for instance—or a wind farm or a paper mill. But local history matters, too. For instance, we might assume that, no matter a nuclear power plant's safety record, no one would feel too comfortable living within sight of one. The iconic cooling towers have become linked in Americans' popular imagination with the horrors of meltdowns and fallout. But an employee at the Byron (Illinois) Nuclear Generating Station grew up thinking of those structures in quite a different manner. She and her friends, as children, would watch with wonder as the billowing steam rose above the horizon. They called the towers "cloud machines." As her generation matured, so did a distinct, novel connection between local people and the plant.

Consider Consumption

Think with your senses


If you want to consider energy policy—how energy should be produced and how much energy you should use—think with your senses about varied ways of producing energy. You can tell something about how much a coal-fired power plant pollutes by looking at what comes out of the smokestack; if you tour the plant, coal dust will settle on your clothes. The manager may pop open a tiny door in a ten-story boiler to let you take a look at the fireball. Fire-and-steam plants, which use heat to create the steam that turns their turbines, produce a massive amount of energy relative to the space they occupy. This is a benefit: the concentration of power production in coal, natural gas, or nuclear plants has succeeded in taking pollution out of cities. But this concentration also keeps the infrastructure that electricity requires out of sight and out of mind. Wind power and solar power, in contrast, require a much larger land area per unit of power produced. These clean energy sources, by making visible the scale of production that our energy use requires, could help with the component of energy reform that no one wants to talk about: reducing consumption.

Carrots or Sticks?

portable power generator

In the United States, average per capita energy consumption is 12,000 kilowatt-hours per year (kW-h/yr), 15 times that of China (800 kW-h/yr) and 60 times that of India (200 kW-h/yr). From a global geopolitical perspective, it is impossible for American energy consumption to remain this high while demand, especially in China, approaches U.S. levels. Implementing a new approach, however, is more complicated than it might appear. On the supply side, energy supply is highly decentralized, with utilities in some states more regulated (e.g., Wisconsin) and others more free market-oriented (e.g., California). On the demand side, changing behavior with regards to energy use is an extremely difficult task that politicians are wary of tackling. To consider how you can play a role in rethinking energy use, pay attention to both supply and demand issues, at several scales. At the household level, examine your consumption patterns and seek ways to conserve energy use relative to national and local average usage patterns. Also try to think more regionally about supply-side issues. How are energy producers regulated in your state, and what are the dominant energy sources? What decisions are currently being made at the state and federal levels regarding energy policy? Seek out independent analyses of these decisions as you ponder how energy policy fits into your voting decisions.

Conserve or Consume?

closeup of a solar panel

John Rowe, the CEO of the energy company Exelon, tells a story about visiting the recovered ruins of a brothel in Pompeii. He describes seeing images of the services that had been offered, drawn along the walls. Among those paintings, he points out, images of abstinence were noticeably absent.This anecdote neatly captures the corporate view of energy conservation: it doesn't pay. However much experts might admit that no energy portfolio is capable of satisfying our current consumption level, promoting conservation seems to be in no one's interest—even as it is in everyone's interest. In some ways, talking about energy conservation doesn't seem to pay intellectually, either, since far fewer academics and analysts focus on problems of consumption than on those of production. The latter submit more easily to number-crunching and quantitative analyses, to charts and tables. The former, however, mostly lie in the realm of qualitative cultural change—something much more difficult to dissect by rational examination. Until we figure out a way to make energy conservation and a focus on consumption pay—both financially and intellectually—the conversation about energy will remain woefully incomplete and ineffective.

Look Back, Look Forward

Which trade-offs should we care about?

wooden map of Wisconsin river with the words the hardest working river in the nation

When considering how we produce energy, our society faces a series of tradeoffs. Ultimately, there is no mode of energy production whereby everyone "wins". For example, switching a power plant from burning coal to burning biomass might result in a "cleaner" form of energy production, but it takes a greater amount biomass to create an equivalent amount of coal-produced energy. How will this change our agricultural and forested landscapes? What, and who, will be burdened with the large number of trucks and trains needed to transport biomass to the power plants? Similarly, wind may be prized as a renewable resource, but it also has its drawbacks. Adverse effects exist for some people and animals living near wind turbines. Also, due to the fickleness of wind, energy produced through wind turbines is intermittent. Moreover, the multitudes of turbines and the infrastructure needed to carry electricity to areas of high need may impose on the aesthetics of treasured landscapes. The bottom line is that no known energy source is a panacea—each entails trade-offs that must be considered and deliberated over in order to move towards a more sustainable future. Casey Meehan

Thinking like a mountain and a mountain goat

rural house with a windmill

Transitioning civilization from non-renewable to renewable energy sources will require us to have vision on both long- and short-term scales. On the one hand, using fossil fuels and uranium to generate power is not sustainable. These are finite resources, not to mention that their use entails both real and potential harmful environmental outcomes. Thinking like a mountain implies a careful consideration of how our present decisions affect the enduring interactions between the human and non-human world and the long-term well-being of all. On the other hand, given the limits imposed by the current energy infrastructure, the capabilities of current technology, and the habits of society, an immediate transition to alternative fuel sources is both unrealistic and impractical. Here it is necessary to think on a time scale closer to a mountain goat: years and decades. What is necessary to ensure that our civilizations remain stable? Thinking like a mountain goat forces us to consider how to work with the whatever resources remain in such a way that promotes a high quality of life in the short term while simultaneously providing the energy needed to transition to more sustainable solutions. Both thinking like a mountain and like a mountain goat are imperative to resolving current and future concerns about energy.