The Norris Dam

Sluice gates control the flow of water inside this 80-year-old hydroelectric dam in northeastern Tennessee. About 26 stories high, the dam spans 1,860 feet across the winding Clinch River and holds back 33,840 acres of water.

Our quest to turn the world’s natural resources into energy for our homes, our economies, and our commutes has left indelible marks on the landscape. Some of it is profoundly beautiful, some quite bleak. Nearly all of it is fascinating. From massive solar arrays in the desert to the innards of a hydrodam to the arabesque tire tracks left in coal ash outside a power plant, our planet is a mosaic of industrial striving. Photographer Spencer Lowell offers us a tour of our engines of energy, with new vantages on their epic scale.


Whiting Petroleum Plant

It isn’t always easy to liberate crude from the earth. This facility in west Texas uses CO2-enhanced oil-recovery technology, injecting high-pressure CO2 into water underground, which helps lower oil’s viscosity and push it toward production wells.

Kingston Fossil Plant

Trucks haul ash slurry to nearby piles outside this coal-burning plant in Harriman, Tennessee. Once the largest such facility in the world, it still burns through about 5 million tons of coal a year and outputs as much as 10 billion kilowatts, enough for 700,000 homes.

Desert Sunlight Solar Farm

Located in California’s Mojave Desert­, it’s the largest solar farm in the world­—with 8.8 million photovoltaic modules that produce enough clean energy each year to displace about 300,000 metric tons of CO2 produced by burning coal.

This article was originally published in the May/June 2016 issue of Popular Science, under the title “Energy Fields.”