Suspended Animation at HMP&L #1

Henderson’s Municipal Power Plant

Electrical power stations have often been called “cathedrals of the industrial age”. The metaphor, besides being shopworn, is half misleading because ecclesiastical smells and bells bear little resemblance to their industrial counterparts. But “cathedral” does convey notions of awe, power, and grandeur that capture the industrial experience. Electrical power, though not quite transcendent, is surely mysterious and daunting in its own right. The fire, heat, steam, dust, noise, and smoke associated with its production recall, if not the deity, then at least a sooty demiurge at work.

There are more mundane attractions to a power plant as well. One is the authenticity of the workplace, where “Every thing is what it is and not another thing” (Bishop Butler, 1726), where what matters most about a thing is how it functions in an industrial process. At least, that is what the intrepid photographer hopes to find. But the camera immediately imposes boundaries and distance. Plant and machinery turn into objects of aesthetic contemplation, to be relayed to a discerning audience in an act of stylized communication in which authenticity drains away. The pictured generator on the white-washed wall of a contemporary gallery or in a coffee table book is hardly the real thing anymore, nor are most viewers’ modes of perception attuned to its original presence. The yellow paint that serves to tell a real handrail from a real pipe becomes, in the context of the gallery, an element in a composition of colors and shapes. Grime in a photograph is no longer grimy.

Nothing of this is necessarily bad. Of course the properties of a representation are not identical to those of the object represented. But whether the differences are shortcomings (as Plato insisted—and he was not even thinking of grime), or whether they are occasions for sensory, emotional, or cognitive enrichment depends very much on the case at hand. A successful photograph invites the viewer to linger and discover what is normally overlooked or fleeting or out of sight. It offers unexpected juxtapositions and allusions; it highlights subjects that would be overwhelmed by their surroundings in real life; it catches the ephemera of light and shade; it allows the viewer to come as close to experiencing a space as is possible without entering it. The distance imposed by the camera can render visible what is otherwise obscured by familiarity. A longtime former worker at HMP&L #1, who had always thought of the plant as drab and ordinary, told me that he was surprised and delighted to discover it in the images as something special, even beautiful.

There is a prolific but dubious genre of industrial and urban photography that indulges the viewer in the gallery equivalent of rubbernecking: gawking at mayhem, misery, depravity, and decay for the sheer fun of it. Much in this genre features the American rust belt and in particular Detroit. It is scorned by the cognoscenti as “ruin porn.” I would rather not have my images of HMP&L #1 be seen that way. For one thing, the state they depict is one of suspended animation, not rot. For another, they try to give a fair description of the plant, not play up its gloomiest parts. I am of course intrigued with the traces of time passing, but I discern them just as gladly in dated imple­ments, forms, and colors as in decaying surfaces. What interests me more than picturesque grunge is the complexity of a space whose faded beauty epitomizes the proud past and uncertain future of our industrial civilization. 

“HMP&L #I” (pronounced /hempl wən/) stands for Henderson Municipal Power And Light Plant Number One. The facility was built in 1951–2 on a promontory overlooking the Ohio River, just two blocks away from Henderson’s historical center. Its architecture, though not on a par with the Art Deco splendor of the New Deal years, rises a notch or two above bland post-war utilitarianism, which is probably due to the prominent location near downtown. But it is not ostentatious enough to attract attention. The neighbors with whom I spoke were giving much less thought to the plant’s architecture than to the soot that it spewed on their homes. Its light appearance notwithstanding, the plant’s machine hall was deemed sturdy enough for a civil defense shelter. Gas masks, cots, and 55-gallon cracker barrels were stockpiled in its basement and subsequently forgotten. 

The plant is owned by the city; construction was financed through a municipal bond issue. Local ownership of power generation in Henderson goes back to the early days of electrification in the 1890s. During the 20th century, when most other municipalities cast their lots with the economies of scale of larger energy conglomerates, Henderson was able to retain control thanks to easily accessible and cheap coal. Even today, the city owns HMP&L #2, the replacement facility for #1. (The operation of the newer plant is farmed out to Big Rivers, a cooperative with a commitment, according to its website, to “the cooperative principle of cooperation among cooperatives”. Big Rivers and HMP&L have been entangled for years now in a legal dispute over the sale of surplus energy.) Hendersonians enjoy electricity rates of around 3.4 cents per kilowatt-hour (as of 2011), which are among the lowest in the nation and a boost to the local economy as well as to global temperatures. 

The location on the mighty Ohio River means abundant and reliable water. A power plant uses a modicum of water in its closed steam circuit and a lot of water in an open cooling loop. In the closed circuit, water is pumped into a network of pipes in the boiler, where the heat from a fire or from a nuclear reaction turns it into steam. The steam then drives the turbines that drive the generators. After having expended its usable energy, the steam passes through a heat exchanger (condenser) that turns it back into liquid water that is fed once again into the cycle. The open cooling loop sends water through the condenser where it picks up the surplus heat from the steam cycle. The warmed water is then either released or sprayed into a cooling tower for some of it to be reused. No cooling tower is needed if the water reservoir is sufficiently large, as is the case at HMP&L #1. 

The river, as well as a railroad line, provide quick access to nearby coal mines. But in fact almost all of the plant’s fuel used to arrive by truck because the mines are so close that loading and unloading trains or barges would not have been efficient. On a busy day, the plant received 25–30 truckloads of 25 tons of coal. It could burn up to 450 tons in 24 hours and produce 864 megawatt-hours of electricity with its two turbines, a 10 megawatt unit installed in 1955, and a 26 megawatt unit installed in 1968. At full load, the plant would have been able to meet the power demand of the newly greened Empire State Building almost six times over, while burning about half the Building’s weight in coal per year. Most of the time, however, only one of the turbines was in operation, and only for three or four hours a day at a significant load. 

The low utilization was a consequence of tightening air quality standards and, paradoxically, increased demand. By the end of the 1960s, Henderson’s electricity needs had outgrown the station’s capacity. The city built the #2 station which went into operation in 1973 with a capacity of 350 megawatts, or ten times that of #1. Plenty of excess capacity at #2 and the Clean Air Act and its amendments put a damper on power production at #1. This, in turn, affected the economics of Henderson’s water supply. The city had decided earlier to take advantage of the pumping infrastructure at station #1 by hooking up its water intake to the cooling system’s outflow. The scheme worked well while the plant was busy. But it meant that the cooling system had to be kept running even when the turbines were idling. As power production was scaled back, this became an increasingly extravagant proposition, considering that on a hot summer day as many as 40 million gallons had to be pumped.

The old plant was finally retired in 2009. Its machinery had gradually fallen behind the state of the art, and it was too small to warrant a complete overhaul to bring it up to current efficiency and environmental standards. The two turbines may some day enjoy a second life in a developing country; the rest of the machinery is likely destined for the scrap yard unless it finds a decorative role in a future use of the building. 

Relaxed photographic opportunities inside a power plant are rare. During the plant’s operation, many interesting areas are off-limits because of searing heat, steam, perilously moving parts, or vital controls. What areas are accessible must not be blocked by camera equipment or tend to offer poor support for a tripod because the floors transmit the vibrations from the engines, turbines, generators, winches, pumps, and countless other humming and churning devices. Better to catch the plant outside its time of operation, which is either right at the beginning or at the end of its working life. But then there are other obstacles. At the beginning, there is construction clutter and debris, a tight delivery and testing schedule, and plenty of red tape. At the end, there are worries about contaminants, oversight and insurance issues, and again plenty of red tape. 

I thus feel very lucky to have had access to HMP&L #1 at an opportune moment, right after the plant had gone out of service and before heat and lights were turned off. For a brief period of time and the benefit of just a handful of visitors, the plant became a museum of its former self, showcasing its unadulterated machinery and analog controls in a befitting period setting. It was very quiet inside the neatly cleaned-up hall, except for an air handler whirring in the distance and some water trickling through a leak in the roof. The faint smell of machine oil reminded me that the exhibits were real.

Acknowledgements

Special thanks to Michael Speaks, Dean of the University of Kentucky’s College of Design, for piquing my interest and easing access, to Wayne Thompson, Director of Power Production at HMP&L, for filling me in on the plant’s history, and to Micah Schweitzer from WNIN for taking an interest.

Last update: 22 July, 2012