The High Voltage Bus Tour
THE ELECTRICAL SUPPLY AND DISTRIBUTION network of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP) was examined in a bus tour the CLUI organized and led as part of the exhibit DWP Power. The DWP was kind enough to allow us to visit some of the ordinary and extraordinary elements of the electrical infrastructure that exists behind their gates.
Taking place on February 7, 2014, the tour left from the CLUI office in Los Angeles, where participants had a chance to view the extensive exhibit about the DWP electrical system that was on view in the CLUI exhibit space.
The bus headed west on Venice Boulevard, then north on the 405 and into the San Fernando Valley, going up river in a sense, up the flow of water and power that enters into the city from its portal at the north end of the valley. An on-going narration by CLUI director Matthew Coolidge provided an overview of the system, pointing out some of its features along the way, such as Distributing Station Number 28 at Cotner and Nebraska, a handsome Art Deco-style building built in 1935, and Distributing Station Number 135 at Sunset Boulevard and the 405, built in 1989 and thus more postmodern in appearance. These are some of the 150 Distributing Stations operated by the DWP to step down the high voltage from receiving stations to the feeder line level found on the wooden utility poles that bring the last-mile of power to businesses and homes.
The bus turned east on Highway 118, south on I-5, exited at Shelton, then crossed over San Fernando Road to our first stop, the Valley Generating Station. We had to wait awhile at the gate while DWP worked out their security issues. Weeks before we had given them a list of names and driver’s license or passport numbers for everyone coming on the tour so they could run it through their security screening process. And, as instructed, everybody on board had brought identification with them, and we provided a printed list they could use to check everyone off. But a recent article in the Wall Street Journal about people shooting out a substation in Northern California might have put some at the utility on high alert.
Once we worked all this out, the manager of the facility came on board and guided us around the plant. We first did a loop around Receiving Station M, one of a couple dozen receiving stations operated by the DWP, where high voltage comes in directly from power sources, whether by high tension lines crossing hundreds of miles from power plants in the desert, or by local power plants like this one, immediately adjacent.
Receiving stations are high voltage electrical yards, with switchgear outside in rows. At these facilities the output of the plant is cleaned, regulated, and processed, then sent out to other receiving stations and distributing stations, usually at around 230,000 or 138,000 volts.
The site is dominated by the looming smokestacks, boilers and cooling systems of the Valley Electrical Generating Station. This is one of four gas-fired power plants operated by the DWP, which collectively provide around 25% of the department’s power (around 50% comes from two out-of-state coal plants and nuclear plants, and the rest is from hydro, wind, and solar).
Built in 1953, Valley Electrical Generating Station is the oldest of the four. The total output for the plant is around 600 megawatts. By comparison, the other gas plants provide as much as 800 megawatts (Scattergood), 1,600 megawatts (Haynes), and 450 megawatts (Harbor). These three are all on the coast. Valley is the only inland plant, and uses groundwater and piped water to cool its generators.
The two oldest units have been shut down (#1 and #2), and two others have been upgraded (#3 and #4). There are also three new, more efficient units that were added around ten years ago. The bus runs down the row, where the units are all laid out, from oldest to newest. We then loop around the plant to enter the other side, at the Truesdale Training Center, where we are met by a new group of briefers, who are much better prepared, and even seem happy to see us.
We enter a room for a briefing, and then split into groups to tour the grounds by foot. Truesdale is the facility where the DWP trains its workers. Its an anatomical display of their operations, intended to instruct people about how it works. A perfect place to get an understanding of an urban electrical distribution system.
There is a control room training center with a wall-sized diagrammatic switchboard of a system similar to the actual DWP network, that lights up and responds to provide realistic and interactive training scenarios. There is a yard full of switchgear equipment and underground vaults that is off-line and labeled, so maintenance crews can safely interact with them. And there is a display showing different types of cabling, splices, fuses, and couplings, along with benches for people to practice splicing techniques and other common activities of electrical mechanics and line workers.
Then there are the pole yards. Truesdale has dense forests of wooden utility poles, some topped with transformers and other appurtenances, set up to practice climbing and doing line work. Truesdale is also the site where the lineman’s rodeo is held every year, a regional competition held for electrical workers and their families.
After our visit, we head out the gates and back on the streets of Sun Valley and the eastern San Fernando Valley, a landscape of gravel pits, scrap yards, landfills, and power plants—all very useful things. We pass the recharge ponds for Tujunga Creek, a once-wild wash that is now managed nearly out of existence, and the base of the Hansen Dam, a terrestrial fortification holding back the onslaught of erosion coming out of the chaotic hills, sparing the urban grids. The earthen dam itself is huge, and is largely covered over by a golf course’s sea of green. Behind the dam is a sacrificial provisional recreational zone with ponds and streams, calm dribbling preludes to Tujunga’s potentially catastrophic surge.
As we curve around the basin damspace on Foothill Boulevard, we pass the unmarked landmark where Rodney King was videotaped while being beaten by the LAPD in 1991, triggering events that would change the sense of the city. The anonymous walled compound of town homes in the background above the curb is strangely evocative, and somehow familiar. Then onto the Foothill Freeway.
Passing over Pacoima Wash, we are just few hundred yards downstream from the site of an often forgotten Los Angeles infrastructure disaster, the Sylmar Tunnel explosion of 1971, where 17 miners building a water supply tunnel for the city were killed. But we are looking at power and not water on this trip, so we pass by the tunnel portal site without stopping. Besides, that was a Metropolitan Water District project, not a DWP one.
Our next stop is up the road at the Sylmar Converter Station, a unique but vital facility supplying the region’s electrical circulatory system. This is where the high voltage DC line from the Bonneville Power Administration plants along the Columbia River comes into Los Angeles. Known as the Pacific Intertie, this is one of the longest DC lines in the world, carrying as much as 3,000 megawatts at 500,000 volts DC over 800 miles of the west.
The use of DC instead of AC in long distance lines occurs only in a few cases, when a power source is far from its market, and there are no stops in between, where the current is converted from AC to DC on one end, then from DC to AC on the other, to reduce loss of current along the line.
The longest one in North America runs from northern Quebec to the suburbs of Boston (HydroQuebec is a major source of power for the northeastern USA). The Pacific Intertie, terminating here at Sylmar, is the second longest. The third longest one connects the Intermountain Power Plant in Utah to Adelanto, north of Los Angeles, and was also built by DWP.
Our bus enters the Sylmar Converter Station, escorted by a DWP car, and trailed by a DWP security truck. We pass through the forest of outdoor switchgear, with peg-legged smoothing reactors, and other exotic forms, resembling an extraterrestrial sculpture park. These structures guide and filter the flood of electrons arriving through the wires from its sister site, the Celilo Converter Station, 800 miles north.
We are met by our briefers, the operators of the facility, who are generously taking time out from their day to explain their workplace to us. After stopping in at the control room, the group goes into the catwalk gallery between the two valve halls, visible behind reinforced glass, part of the Faraday cage insulating us from the energy inside. Inside each highbay hall are thyristors, high voltage converters, suspended from the ceiling. Made by the Swiss engineering company ABB, they are massive, organic, and futuristic, caged in their halls, like the lungs of a futuristic landscape alien machine.
Power leaves the facility at 230,000 volts AC and is distributed to the Sylmar Switching Station, and then to the Rinaldi Receiving Station, and Receiving Station J, in Northridge.
We depart, energized too, out the gate, and up Interstate 5, passing the Cascades, where the DWP reenacted the 1913 opening of the Los Angeles Aqueduct on its centennial, two months before the tour. We pass the Sunshine Canyon Landfill, a home for LA’s waste for nearly half a century, then pull over under the spaghetti of the I-5/Highway 14 interchange, for an infrastructural moment, at Newhall Pass, an axis mundi of LA conveyance.
Looking up is one of the most complicated freeway exchanges in the city, with flyways soaring this way and that (which collapsed in the Northridge earthquake 20 years ago). Looking down is a canyon with a hundred year-old rail tunnel portal, the train coming into the city from the north. Just out of sight to the northwest is Beale’s Cut, a trough dug in a canyon in the 1860s as a way to pass in and out of the city. At the surface, where the bus is pulled over to look this over, is the old road through the pass, built after Beale’s Cut, officially called The Old Road.
We stop for a picnic lunch just north of the pass, at the entrance of Towsley Canyon Park, next to an abandoned visitors center, vacant for twenty years, and made obsolete when they opened a new one further up the road in the park. We stretch our legs in the ruins of old stables that resemble Donald Judd boxes, across from a surprising collection of movie prop artifacts and sculptures at Calgrove Kennels, where you can also board your dog.
Then onward, upstream, closer to the source, Colonel Kurtz, the Wizard of Oz, and Chinatown, Jake. Or, just along the interstate some more, through the Newhall’s Valencia, exit at Magic Mountain, then up San Francisquito Canyon Road to our next stop, Power Plant Number One.
The windy road up the canyon leads to a little DWP village, with old cottages and a community center, though few workers live there anymore. We meet our briefers here for our visit at this plant, which, when it was built in 1917, provided nearly all of the electricity supplied by the City of Los Angeles, now more than 40 miles away, downstream. We are at the apogee of the tour.
The plant sits on top of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which provides the falling water to run its turbines. When DWP watermaster William Mulholland designed the aqueduct, his associate on the power side, Ezra Scattergood, designed the electrical generation system to feed off of it. Both take advantage of the difference in elevation between the Owens Valley and the ocean, a 3,500-foot waterfall extending over 235 miles. Fueled by gravity, one creates the flow, the other extracts the energy from the flow. A symbiotic manmade cascade of water and power.
Though nearly a century old, Power Plant Number One is still online, one of several power plants pulling power from the aqueduct and shipping it to the city. Our briefers here are tremendously generous and easygoing, a stark contrast to the security state we experienced earlier in the day. Here, in this old industrial idyll, the old-timers rule, and DWP history is still current.
It is hard to leave the DWP village at the end of the day, but we have one more stop to make on the way back, before it gets dark. A few miles back down San Francisquito Canyon Road, the road itself runs through what was, 80 years ago, the bottom of a reservoir. In 1928, holding back this reservoir, the St. Francis Dam failed, hours after Mulholland inspected it and declared it safe. Its failure was one of the worst industrial accidents in American history, with at least 450 people killed, some say a lot more.
We park the bus where the road turns and the old road surface continues past a gate into the trees. We walk down the crumbling asphalt to the remains of the dam, still very much there, a jumbled pile of earth and stepped concrete, reminding us of the ruins at the end of Thomas Cole’s Course of Empire.
Back on the bus we pass Power Plant Number Two, which was destroyed in the flood of 1928, but quickly rebuilt. On the way out of the canyon we listen to a song about the St. Francis Dam Disaster by Frank Black, who tells how water seeks its own, all the way to the ocean. Then we drop back towards sea level, into Los Angeles. ♦