St. Paul, the city that has made art out of sidewalks and stop signs, is painting on another canvas even more unusual and somewhat larger: the steam plume emitted by the downtown District Energy plant.
On Tuesday night, a switch was thrown and the plume suddenly was lit by colored LEDs — purple, teal, white — that pulsed to the cadences of poems dialed up by members of the public.
“We’re kind of a funky town, that we do things like this,” Mayor Chris Coleman told a crowd gathered for the project’s kickoff Tuesday at the Science Museum.
It’s the first of three lighting displays, each designed by a local artist, that are slated to run a total of nearly eight weeks to illuminate the season’s dark nights — as well as raise awareness of the plant’s uniquely green energy generating process, used to heat and cool downtown.
“The Plume Project has created an opportunity to use art as it’s never been done before,” said Ken Smith, president and CEO of District Energy.
“We thought, what a great way to show what the plume really is, water vapor and steam, the by-product of a more efficient energy production system,” said Nina Axelson, District Energy’s vice president of public affairs.
There have been light shows before. But probably few, if any, projected colored light rhythmically onto puffs of billowing vapor rising from a power plant.
From now through Dec. 8, “Rumblings” will play along the downtown skyline. Designed by Emily Stover, the light display will be keyed to one of six poems randomly called up by the public (by dialing 651-383-1378).
Next will be “Solar System” by Aaron Dysart from Dec. 22 through Jan. 12, when plume lights will dim and move in time with NASA data showing sun spots, storms and other solar activity.
The final light display, “The Plume Coloring Contest” by Asia Ward, will run during the Winter Carnival from Jan. 28 to Feb. 7 and project images on the plume submitted by the public.
The artists approached District Energy with the idea more than two years ago, after the plant enlisted the City Art Collaboratory to dream up a way to reach the community through art. Axelson admitted the concept was hard to grasp.
“I’m sure we were a little hesitant at first, but the idea began to take shape and they applied for a Knight Foundation Arts Challenge grant, and it became a real thing,” she said.
“We waited for someone to tell us that we can’t do this, and it never happened,” Stover told the kickoff crowd.
The $70,000 project is about two-thirds funded, with money coming from the $35,000 Knight grant, Blue Cross and Blue Shield, District Energy, St. Paul College and the St. Paul Riverfront Corp.
District Energy’s plant, the largest hot-water energy system of its kind in North America, is fired mostly by waste wood with assists from other fuels in the winter. Smith recently announced plans to stop burning coal by 2021.
Steam produced by the boiler is used to generate electricity, most of which is sold to Xcel Energy, and to heat and cool much of downtown. The plume seen in the sky is steam left over from the process.