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Know the West

A spark leads to a story


When I moved to the rural West, I found myself curious -- in a way I never was while living in an urban area -- about the infrastructure that makes civilization possible. Who built all those ditches that carry brown waters to the hayfields and homes, and how is the water parceled out? Where do the 100-car trains take the coal mined in our valley, and what is it used for?

These are the kinds of questions that High Country News' editors and writers get to ask every day as we try to understand and write about the workings of the West. Take this issue's cover story. We've covered energy development, power plants and the potential for renewable energy for decades. Yet we've never stepped back to examine the grid -- the network of power plants and wires that keep the lights on across our vast region. Senior Editor Jonathan Thompson, who has a penchant for difficult, complex stories, decided it was time, and his subsequent quest led him from nuclear power plants in the Southwest, to hydroelectric dams in the Northwest, to wind farms in Wyoming.

As he tells it, Thompson's interest was literally sparked at an early age, as a child growing up in Durango, Colo. "When I was about 6 years old, my brother threw a rock at a power pole, and, out of an amazing stroke of luck -- bad or good -- it hit a critical component attached to the wire. A huge blue spark erupted from the thing, and we ran away, laughing," he says. "Only later did we find out that half the town was blacked out for several hours as technicians searched for the cause. I doubt that they ever guessed it was a rock, thrown by a kid."

The grid remains a vulnerable system increasingly stressed by an expanding, power-hungry population, climate change and even our desire to rely more heavily on solar and wind power. While there are plenty of smart people working to make the grid both greener and more reliable, they face many obstacles, including the political power of the conservative utilities that run the system, and communities resistant to new transmission lines running through their backyards.

For this story, Thompson zoomed out for a big-picture view, in which he tried to unravel a bit of the mystery of how this gigantic web of wires stretching across the landscape actually works. Look at it as a sort of primer on the electrical grid, one that will inform upcoming articles that focus on the system's intricacies. For now, we hope this journey into the circulation system of our modern age will satisfy a bit of your curiosity, without the power outage.