not exactly a piece of cake

There’s nothing like visiting a power plant, especially one as big and amazing as the Hoover Dam. That’s a photo of me at the dam with Charles Herrington, a guide with the U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation. Since 9/11, most of the dam has been off-limits to tourists but we were given the complete tour that day, arranged specially by the PowerGen conference.

Touring Hoover Dam at the PowerGen Show Click here to enlarge image

Having sent our social security numbers, names and addresses to the Hoover Dam people weeks earlier so that background checks could be completed, we were now cleared and ready to go down into the dam. There were about 50 of us, utility people, engineers and sales reps, walking reverently through the impossibly cavernous space, marveling at the construction all around us.

The first concrete pour at Hoover Dam was in the summer of 1933, the last, in 1935. The concrete is, in fact, still curing and will continue to mature for at least another 1,000 years. Terrazzo floors made of polished chips of marble embedded with fanciful art deco touches and gleaming brass Westinghouse logos on the generators still proudly embellish this engineering marvel, the greatest dam of its day. The comment I heard most often from my fellow tourists was, “Beautiful, isn’t it? What workmanship.”

At that time, I was working on this international issue of EL&P. I interviewed Cal Payne, a consultant who worked on a power plant project in Kazakhstan. He sent me this photo of the heat net in Almaty, part of the Soviet legacy to the country. A central heating plant, typically coal, heated all the homes in a particular area by boiling hot water and pumping steam through the network of pipes. That got me thinking: in 1936, while Kazakhstan became a Soviet Republic, the first generator began operating at Hoover Dam. Today, they have a heat net and we have Las Vegas.

Then I read an interesting story in the December issue of Bon Appetit. The author, married to an itinerant aid worker, baked his special Christmas cake recipe in many challenging places as he moved around the world. The Christmas he spent in the Republic of Georgia-like Kazakhstan, once part of the Soviet Union-it was 10 below and he had no stove. The power had been turned off when the country fell apart. “The whole country had returned to the days of communal baking. So I hunted out a communal wood-fired oven where the Georgians baked their Christmas meal of suckling pigs. I took my place in a queue of men cradling piglets in their arms like infants, me with my cake tin.”

Fast forward to 2006. The New Year began with a crisis over natural gas supplies ignited by a dispute between Russia and Ukraine.

Heat net connection, Almaty, Kazakhstan Click here to enlarge image

In late December, Russia reduced the rate at which it was pumping natural gas from Russia to Ukraine. Supplies to the rest of Europe were threatened and panic over energy security spread as countries and major industries realized that much of the continent’s energy depends on a single, “unreliable” supplier. Russia holds the world’s largest gas reserves and Gazprom, the Russian energy giant, provides about a quarter of Western Europe’s natural gas.

On the same day it cut gas supplies to Ukraine, Russia assumed the presidency of the Group of 8, the club for the world’s leading industrial democracies. China, by the way, has not been invited to join this group because it fails the test of democracy.

From powering Las Vegas’ make-believe glitz economy to cooking holiday dinner in a communal oven: almost an unfathomable mental distance to cross, but a leap that more of us will have to take as U.S. companies enter the world’s energy markets. I’m optimistic that not only can we do it, but markets will respond favorably to our influence. Shouldn’t be too hard. After all, we built Hoover Dam, didn’t we?

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