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Another Benefit of Hydro: Laser Light Show at Grand Coulee Dam

Evening has descended as the indigo luminescence of dusk fades on the Western horizon in Washington State. The day’s heat gives way to cool night air, and a sense of anticipation rises from hundreds of onlookers. One by one, the 11 massive 135-foot-high spillway gates are lowered, allowing sheets of white water to descend over the face of Grand Coulee Dam and transforming the concrete giant into one of the world’s largest projection screens. The sound of thunder roars through the canyon that cradles the dam, and a deep, resonant voice (the voice of the Columbia River) booms, “Out of chaos, I was born. Throughout time, I have raged. I am power, I am strength. I am the river … Columbia. I am life.”

Thus begins a 36-minute laser light show that reveals the human and natural history of the river; events leading to the construction of Grand Coulee Dam and benefits of electrical power, irrigation, recreation, and wildlife and fish habitat created throughout the Columbia Basin Project. Synchronized with this narration are free-form patterns in brilliant colors that dance across the dam face and are changed into dynamic, 300-foot-high animated images. Stimulating music from artists such as Vangelis and Neil Diamond accompanies the vivid graphics, dazzling and enthralling crowds.

History of the light show

Construction of Grand Coulee was completed in 1942. In 1943, the project featured one powerhouse with a capacity of 150 MW. The lighting program began in 1957 to enhance visitor enjoyment. A bank of 754 various-colored lights on the west bank of the Columbia River immediately below the dam provided numerous effects on the waterfall on the dam face. The Bureau of Reclamation, owner of Grand Coulee Dam, ran the lighting program each evening during the summer. At that time, much more water was available than was needed to generate power, meaning a large amount of water was spilled over the dam and created excellent conditions for the lighting program.

However, from 1968 to 1973, additional upstream water storage facilities were created as a result of three dams built in Canada. With the installation of the last unit in the Third Powerplant at Grand Coulee, generating capacity of the plant increased by 3,900 MW, which required vast quantities of water. At that point, Reclamation reverted to a controlled spill program with fewer hours for spilling and only a minimum (about 6 inches) amount of water flowing over the spillway.

By the mid-1980s, the aging lighting system was becoming difficult to maintain. After nearly 30 years, the program had become an expected part of the visitor experience at Grand Coulee, drawing people from across the U.S. and around the world. The lighting program was an effective communication tool when used in conjunction with a live lecture by a Reclamation guide to explain the benefits of Grand Coulee Dam and the Columbia Basin Project to the public.

In 1986, Reclamation held a public meeting to discuss what the Grand Coulee community would like to see in place of the aged system. As a result of this meeting, Reclamation decided to install a new, modern communication tool. This would involve replacing the floodlights with state-of-the-art lighting, installing a laser lighting program that could work independently or in conjunction with the floodlights and installing a new outdoor sound system to complement both.

During the winter of 1988/1989, a new laser light system designed by Laser Fantasy Inc. was installed at the Grand Coulee Dam Visitor Center. Up to this time, no laser system had been designed to project images across a mile-long surface with the laser beam travelling as far as three-quarters of a mile. The image sizes were to be the largest projected by lasers anywhere in the world.

The laser light show premiered on Memorial Day weekend in 1989. Since that time, hundreds of thousands of people have seen this world-renowned show, making it a main attraction for visitors who come to the dam to this very day.

The laser light show on the face of Grand Coulee Dam attracts hundreds of visitors a night in the summer to watch fanciful free-form patterns in brilliant colors that dance across the face of the dam and are changed into dynamic, 300-foot-high animated images.

Technically speaking

Equipment for the laser show is housed in an enclosed glass projection booth in the Visitor Center, more than half a mile from the dam face. This equipment includes four lasers, mirrors, servomechanical controls, and a cooling system.

In the 1990s, the first major upgrade of this system took place. The graphics were converted for storage on a computer hard drive. The most recent upgrades, performed over the past three years, have included digitizing and remastering the show, upgrading the hard drive system and replacing and upgrading the optics table to meet laser industry standards.

But it is the lasers themselves that remain the most fascinating pieces of equipment in the system. These are low-intensity lasers that do not cause damage to the dam surface. The beams must travel a long distance to reach the dam face, and the light is diffused by mirrors on the optics table at various intensities before reaching the dam. Each laser produces 50 kW of heat and requires 6 gallons of water per minute for cooling.

Two Argon lasers and two Krypton lasers produce beams that are split by filters into three colors: red, blue, and green. The intensity of each beam is manipulated using servomechanical controls. The beams are then combined and sent to scanners in various configurations, with the end result being a variety of color combinations. The images are composed of 500 to 1,000 dots that are scanned in sequence, connecting them to produce a still image or “cell.” The cells are projected onto the face of the dam and appear as images of horses galloping, wagons moving, ships sailing, fish jumping and eagles soaring.

Benefits of the light show

This is the 22nd year for the laser light show at Grand Coulee. The attraction draws hundreds of people each summer night, boosting the tourism that is the largest source of income for the area. “It’s difficult to overstate the importance of the laser light show to the local economy,” says Scott Hunter, president of the Grand Coulee Dam Area Chamber of Commerce. “For something that’s been in place for so long, it’s also difficult to quantify, except by the degree of concern expressed by local businesses if the show is down for maintenance. It’s a high-priority item for local economics, and everyone in our community knows it.”

Reclamation realizes the importance of the show to the community and continues to maintain the system. In addition, the show provides an effective way for Reclamation to educate thousands of visitors each summer about the benefits of Reclamation, Grand Coulee Dam, and the Columbia Basin Project.

Challenges and future plans

The aging system requires increased maintenance. The cost to develop and install the program was $785,700, but upgrades and replacement of custom parts has translated to more than $1 million being spent over the past seven years. Equipment has become outdated, making it difficult to replace parts. New parts often must be custom-built. And because this system was designed specifically for Grand Coulee, some parts are proprietary, making it difficult to find contractors who can repair the system. Reclamation’s electricians perform regular maintenance and make minor repairs. However, Reclamation maintains a service contract with Lasersmith Light Show Systems to troubleshoot larger technical problems when they arise.

As worn or failed parts are replaced or upgraded, extra stress is put on the remaining older parts of the system. For example, newly digitized images are much faster, and the older scanners on the optics table could not keep up. Mirrors on the optics table have cracked and burnt as a result of the faster speeds. But newer, faster scanners are not compatible with the old system.

Reclamation plans to replace the system with new lasers that are brighter and require less power, as well as eliminate the cumbersome water-cooled system. The updated system will be more energy efficient and easier to maintain. Updating the hardware is only part of the improvement plan; Reclamation will also change the show. There have been many changes and advances in how Reclamation manages the Columbia Basin Project and the role of Grand Coulee Dam’s power production. These changes and others will be reflected in an updated script and entirely new show. The current plan is to replace the show within the next five years.

And now, back to the show …

After 36 minutes, darkness has blanketed Grand Coulee as the laser light show concludes and the Columbia River resonates, “Grand Coulee Dam stands today as an engineering wonder of the world … a monument to past achievement; a commitment to the needs of the present; and a testament to the future. I have swept along in my course for millions of years and will continue to do so for millions more. I am power. I am strength. I am the Columbia. I am life.”

The 11 gates begin to slowly rise. The sound of the water that blanketed the dam face slowly fades and quiet descends. The laser light show has come to an end for the evening, with hundreds of visitors having experienced a unique benefit of hydropower at Grand Coulee Dam.

— By Lynne A. Brougher, public affairs officer, Grand Coulee Power Office, Bureau of Reclamation

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