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Entries in dam (2)


Blue Highways: West Canaan, New Hampshire

Unfolding the Map

In West Canaan, William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) remarks on the disappearing water dams and turbines that powered the factories of yesterday.  Of course, I can't let an opportunity go by for talking about an alternative energy idea I had, and more.  To see where you too can eat and get gas, go to the map.

Book Quote

"Near West Canaan, I stopped at Al's Steamed Dogs & Filling Station.  A hand-painted sign: EAT HERE AND GET GAS.  Al's was closed.  The sky darkened, a shower doused the road and cooled things in the White Mountains.  The villages seemed to seep down the slopes to settle in the valleys along streams where people of another time built multiwindowed stone and brick factories and mills.  Most of the old buildings and mill dams had been done in by cheap electric power and centralized industry.  But there was talk of again tapping the unused energy in the New England streams with small, computer-designed turbines."

Blue Highways: Part 8, Chapter 10

EAT HERE & GET GAS! This is the actual sign that William Least Heat-Moon saw in West Canaan, New Hampshire. Photo by "kaszeta" and hosted at Flickr. Click on photo to go to host site.West Canaan, New Hampshire

I thought I had a great idea once.  I believe that I was driving somewhere out in a very rural area; perhaps it was Texas sometime in the 90s when I lived there.  I noticed that there were a lot of telephone and utility poles out there on these vast, windy plains.  That in itself didn't catch me, until I also noticed all the farms and homesteads that had windmills on their property.

Some of the windmills were really, really old.  You've probably seen them.  They are the wooden or galvanized many-rotored windmills that were used primarily for pumping water.  Many of them came from a kit, ordered at one time from a Sears catalogue.  The really old ones were made from wood, but a number of them that I saw were often Aermotor metal windmills.  In doing some background for this post, I began to understand that there was fierce competition in the windmill industry until eventually, Aermotor became the only producer of windmills in America with a design that so combined efficiency and effectiveness with price that it has basically remained unchanged since its first unveiling in 1888.

Basically, I saw all these windmills on properties throughout rural areas.  I saw the vast windy plains.  I saw telephone poles along roadsides, train tracks and other places perhaps serving their function of holding wires but nothing else.  My mind then thought about all the advances made in technology, on one hand, and the continual problem we were having in breaking ourselves of fossil fuel consumption.  While it is imperative that we develop alternative energies, fossil fuels (and their pollution and climate changing effects) are just too cheap.  But, why couldn't someone do something that might be cheap on a small scale?  I thought of the idea of parallel computing, in which each computer in an array gets a piece of a task rather than giving the whole task to one computer.  Why couldn't we do that with energy, I wondered?

So, my brilliant and innovative idea was this - take all the utility poles in vast, windswept and unpopulated areas, and put a small windmill on each.  These windmills would generate a little power, not much, but with the millions of telephone and utility poles out there, I speculated, each little bit of power fed into the grid, magnified by millions, might create a significant source of energy.  Wind is variable, but even when some areas are not windy, other areas would be, thus creating a continual source of energy.  All it would take is a small windmill on each pole and a way of feeding it into the grid.  At that I got stuck, because I'm not an electrical engineer.

After checking The Google, I have discovered that I'm not the only person to have such an idea.  There are a lot of people who have speculated that use could be made of the existing utility poles and telephone poles to create wind power.  Here's one discussion, and another, and still a third.  And there seems to be just as many people out there that are not optimistic about the idea.  There are questions about mechanical feasibility, questions about windmill size and height needed, questions about who owns the utility poles and if those owners would allow these motors to be installed.  But, I still think my idea could be done.  The term for them, evidently, is micro-windmills.  If one day you see them, remember the idea was mine first!

Why am I tilting at windmills, in a manner of speaking?  I'm following up on LHM's statement about cheap energy and industrialization leading to the decline of use of factory mill dams.  In the days before widespread power and cheap access to sources of combustible fuels, the engines of industry were all natural and, for the most part, clean.  Dams and water spilling over and through them provided the power needed to turn equipment.  Water wheels, pushed around and around by constant stream current, converted water energy into mechanical energy.

It wasn't until coal came into widespread use as a fuel whose combustion turned water into steam that could power new and more efficient machinery for production did the water wheel become quaint in its obsolescence.  And in some ways, we have been paying for our industry ever since.  From the environmental in the form of air and water pollution and climate change, to the social in the form of increased expectation of productivity and work polluting our calendars, we've turned our industry into expectations, and those expectations will make it difficult to go back to a simpler time when the power supply was either ourselves, or the simple things that wind and water could give us.

Yet, I'm afraid that is what we might have to do.  Fossil fuels are finite, and are damaging the earth as currently used.  At some point, the supply of fossil fuels will begin to decrease.  The potential for active solar energy is clearly abundant, but we've yet to harness it in an manner effective for running industry.  We've dammed pretty much every formerly wild river with hydroelectric potential to wring as much power out of them as possible.  Some speculate that tidal action or ocean currents will be able to supply a significant source of hydroelectricity, but those innovations are still dreams.  Wind energy is being utilized efficiently in places, but so far involves a significant investment in large wind turbines and land in wind corridors.  There are other even more radical ideas out there, such as clean fusion energy, but they are still unreachable.

So why can't we just put a few million micro-windmills on telephone and utility poles to help solve our energy and pollution problems?  I've yet to see a definitive answer that we absolutely cannot.  It seems to me that it requires a will, not a fallback on the old excuse that petroleum is cheap and wind too expensive.  As I write this, scientists around the world are trumpeting the seeming discovery of the Higgs boson, the particle which will allow us to explain all matter in the universe.  A huge amount of effort and energy, as well as many billions of dollars, was put into discovering the Higgs boson.  Why can't we put the same amount of, excuse the term, energy into exploring a radical, but possibly beneficial, way of powering our future?

But, I guess I'm just a dreamer.  Now if we could only convert the gas we get from eating bad road food to useful energy, we'd be getting somewhere.

Musical Interlude

A couple of windmills songs.  First up - Toad the Wet Sprocket with their song Windmills.

Second, Sting sings Windmills of Your Mind.  I almost put the Dusty Springfield version on this post, but decided I liked how Sting does it better.

If you want to know more about West Canaan or Canaan

Old newspaper article about a train wreck in West Canaan
Town of Canaan
Wikipedia: Canaan

Next up:  Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire


Blue Highways: North Bonneville, Washington

Unfolding the Map

The gorge of the Columbia River and its tributaries is great for damming, and William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) runs across the first of the dams, Bonneville Dam, as he travels upriver in Ghost Dancing.  I will look at the costs and benefits of dams, from their clean energy production to their social and environmental effects.  Go to the map to locate North Bonneville in the context of the Blue Highways journey.

Book Quote

"At North Bonneville, the first of the immense dams that the Corps of Engineers has built on the Columbia at about fifty-mile intervals, thereby turning one of the greatest rivers of the hemisphere into staircase lakes buzzing with outboards....

"....Dams are necessary, the Corps maintains, and you can't argue necessity; nevertheless, I don't think Lewis or Clark or the old Chinooks would care much for Bonneville.  But then, like the wild river, they are dead."

Blue Highways: Part 6, Chapter 7

Bonneville Dam. Photo at the Washington Department of Ecology. Click on photo to go to host page.

North Bonneville, Washington

As I wrote in my previous post, the 1930s were an era of massive public works projects put in place by the Roosevelt administration to help pull the US out of the Great DepressionThe idea was that if government spent a lot of money to put people to work building roads, bridges and dams (as well as commissioning other types of public works), this would put money into the pockets of ordinary Americans, who would spend the money and thereby increase demand in the economy.  This would, in turn, stimulate greater investment as businesses restarted or opened to meet that demand.

The series of dams built along the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest were part of a number of these projects.  The idea was simple if not massive.  If the massive water flow through the Columbia was harnessed, it could provide power for an entire region.  Construction of the dams would put thousands of people to work and put money in their pockets as well as stimulate business.  The result was a series of what LHM calls a series of "staircase lakes."

The dams have certainly provided power.  According to the Bureau of Reclamation, about 80 percent of the electricity in the state of Washington is created by hydropower dams on the Columbia and its tributary rivers.  With this electricity has come development, in fact, without the electricity one might be able to say that Washington would be a rural state with little industry.  Folk-singer Woody Guthrie, commissioned by the Bonneville Power Administration during the construction of the Columbia dams to write songs praising their utility, fully endorsed this type of development during the Depression.  To him, dams meant industry and industry meant work for millions of economically distressed Americans.  Other nations have used their water resources to spur development and provide their energy needs.  Rising economic power China is the largest producer of hydroelectric power - and its Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River has the largest electricity generating capacity and is second in overall output to Itaipu Dam between Brazil and Paraguay because of seasonal water flow variance.

Of course, dams have their downsides also.  Advocates of wild rivers, or rivers in their natural state, lament the loss of so many rivers to this type of development.  LHM makes a nod to this view when he states that Lewis and Clark, and the old Chinooks who fished the Columbia River, would not like the Bonneville Dam.  However, it is ironic that at least in the case of the Bonneville Dam, it is situated near where an ancient landslide made a natural dam that blocked the Columbia River for some centuries, until it eventually broke through and washed away the debris.

In order to settle and develop rivers, the rivers had to be tamed somewhat, but wild rivers left to their devices were a seasonal provider of river sediment which enriched the native soils and created fertile ecosystems for animals and humans.  Today, the mantra is to put levees, dikes and dams in place so that the rivers stay in their places, at some environmental cost. 

Another downside is that dams can impede the seasonal run of spawning fish, even if accommodations are made for them.  Bonneville Dam, for instance, has a fish ladder to allow spawning salmon to run past the dam.  LHM argues in this chapter, however, that 10 percent of salmon are lost and fish suffer from a variety of maladies caused by high nitrogen content that the dam's spillways introduce into the water. 

The flooding of areas behind the dam also comes at great cost.  Some of the cost is due to the loss of irreplaceable natural features.  When the Glen Canyon Dam was finished in 1966, it flooded a stunning area of slot canyons and other geological features that will never been seen again.  The building of O'Shaughnessy Dam in California for San Francisco's drinking water supply was opposed by John Muir and other naturalists.  When they lost the battle, California lost a valley, Hetch Hetchy, that by all accounts was as stunning as its neighbor Yosemite Valley.  Communities can be affected as well.  There have been many accounts written of the 1000 towns, villages and even cities that have been or are being submerged by the Three Gorges Dam, which has displaced over one million people.  Even dam projects in the United States came at social cost - some 3000 people were evicted from their homes because of the Columbia's Grand Coulee Dam, and the town of Roosevelt was lost due to the construction of the John Day Dam on the Columbia. There are many other "drowned towns" around the United States.

The other cost can be a way of life.  When the building of the Columbia River dams disrupted fish runs, it also disrupted Native American traditional fishing grounds.  Since a primary source of food and income was affected, these communities have felt wide ranging social effects from the loss of this primary livelihood.

Dams are also popular politically - it's a long-term project that a congressman or senator can bring home to his or her constituents.  To have the Army Corps of Engineers or the Bureau of Reclamation come into a state, plan and build a dam, and bring in federal dollars for the project can be a great short-term economic stimulus and gives politicians something to brag about at election time.  Yet there can be costs to that as well.  Though the New Orleans tragedy was not caused by a dam, the Army Corps of Engineers appears to be responsible, though it has denied this, for some catastrophic levee failures in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina due to a lack of oversight.  Other issues include the "greening" of places not meant to be green and the allocation of water.  Despite some spectacular dams in the western United States that have put communities in the middle of deserts and made millions of acre feet of water available for agricultural use, the Southwestern United States is and will remain a desert.  The effects of dwindling water supplies throughout the southwestern states due to drought and overuse are only now beginning to be felt.  There are some that forecast that a cause of some major future world conflicts will be over access to fresh water - just watch what happens in the Middle East as Israel and its Arab neighbors all fight with each other over access to water.

"Roll on, Columbia, roll on" sang Woody Guthrie in the 1930s.  His was an optimistic look at all of the benefits the river could bring if we just dammed it and used it.  In the early 1980s, when LHM was passing through, there was a budding sense that maybe we'd dammed too much.  As we now pass through the early part of the 21st century, dams are a conundrum.  They provide clean energy but still have environmental and social consequences.  Some want to "undam" the rivers, but others want to continue to use this natural resource until we can find other cost-effective clean energy measures as alternatives to coal and oil.  Perhaps we're not too damned using dams, but maybe we'll discover another way so that the rivers one day can again run wild.

Musical Interlude

I mentioned him in the post so I might as well use him as the musical interlude.  Here's Woody Guthrie, the famous American folk-singer, with Roll On Columbia.

If you want to know more about North Bonneville

City of North Bonneville
Columbia River Images: North Bonneville
Wikipedia: North Bonneville

Next up:  White Salmon and Appleton, Washington