Slightly Off Center

Slightly Off Center: Power in Plain Sight

By Dennis Hinkamp

Don’t hide the evidence.
by Dennis Hinkamp

I was driving through the Midwest’s flattest states this summer, and noticed how the smoke stacks and water towers serve as industrial cairns along the highway. Similar to those piles of rocks that mark trails, they lead you from town to town, across the prostrate plains, east to west—from Davenport to Cedar Rapids and on to Ames, Iowa and beyond.

The city of Ames has a coal-fired power plant right at the end of Center Street. You can see it right out the window of the trendiest coffee shop. A few blocks away, Iowa State University, which is now famous for alternative fuels research, has a similar plant about the same size as their basketball arena. Since all that coal has to be delivered to the plants somehow, any drive across town requires building in enough slack time to wait for train crossings or rerouting of your trip to one of the few streets that go under or over the tracks. In Iowa, the coal comes in, the corn and ethanol go out.

Water towers are the Midwest’s artificial mountains. Without them, there wouldn’t be enough water pressure to take a shower. The towers act as landmarks and 200-foot-high billboards, alerting you to which city lies ahead long before the interstate signs tell you it’s there.

If you look overhead in most Midwest cities, such as Ames, you will see a warren of telephone, cable and electrical wires. As kids growing up in the Midwest, we used to call the wires the “squirrel highway.” The circus act squirrels used them as tightrope wires to facilitate neighborhood trashcan and bird feeder raids. Who needs trees when the humans have built you a big top circus of fun?

All the power is in plain sight in the Midwest. Even natural gas is visible in many older cities. Before the high-pressure pipelines were developed, most urban areas had huge above-ground storage tanks ressembling football stadiums. They operated like a bellows that went up and down as the supply of natural gas fluctuated.

Contrast this to the West:

When my westward drive brought me to Wyoming, I started noticing an absence of industrial cairns. There were power lines and a few windmills, but the only sign of coal power were some distant smoke stacks that look like they could belong to some giant land-locked cruise ship. These “ships” are docked in what most people, even the ones who live there, refer to as “the middle of nowhere.” I saw lots of coal on trains leaving Wyoming—presumably for Iowa.

Likewise, there are no water towers marking upcoming towns on the horizon in the West. Many communities here actually have too much water pressure and homeowners have to install reducers to keep the underground water rushing down from the mountains from bursting their pipes. Natural gas also comes, mysteriously, from somewhere underground and makes its way to Western homes with only the occasional appearance of huge above-ground pipes crossing the desert.

Though some may call the Midwest’s conspicuous resource consumption “blight,” it at least seems more honest and upfront. Westerners love the uncluttered feel of remote power stations, cheap natural gas and buried cables, but it gives the illusion that there aren’t any resources being used. Other than paying the bills, it’s pretty easy to forget that we are actually using any natural resources.

That’s why every new wind farm, water project or scarce mention of nuclear power as even a remote possibility causes such a stir in the West. We just aren’t used to seeing where our electricity, water and other resources come from. We need to stop acting like we aren’t part of the grid.

Dennis Hinkamp didn’t write himself his usual clever tagline this month. Maybe he just didn’t have the energy.


This article was originally published on September 30, 2009.