Off Beat: Ross Complex lab on the grid, now on media's radar

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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When The Columbian featured Vancouver's Ross Complex substation in an article last December, the story described a high-voltage laboratory there as "little-known."

That may not be true anymore.

The Associated Press picked up the article shortly after it was published, allowing it to appear in media outlets across the country. Discovery Canada sent a television crew to shoot a segment for its "Daily Planet" program in April. And NBC's "Today" show just aired a live segment from the Bonneville Power Administration lab with investigative correspondent Jeff Rossen.

(The television show "Portlandia" has also filmed at Ross Complex, though the facility wasn't identified in the episode that included it.)

Built in the 1970s, the high-voltage lab at Ross Complex is used for a variety of research and testing efforts. There are only a handful of facilities like it in North America, according to the federal power-marketing agency.

The lab uses high-octane equipment to push various components of the power grid to their limits. A column-shaped surge generator can create lightning on demand, capable of pumping out 2 million volts of electricity.

The four-minute "Today" segment, which aired July 30, focused on how to stay safe from lightning during a storm. As part of the report, crews used the Ross Complex lab to zap mannequins and show how damaging and deadly lightning can be.

One of the dummies, a female figure wearing a dress, ended up with burns seared onto its front, back and head.

"And this is just 2 million volts," BPA electrical engineer Jeff Hildreth told Rossen during the NBC report. "It can be 100 million up to a billion volts in real lightning, so think of the damage that could cause."

The entire "Today" segment is posted online at www.today.com/video/today/55754864.

Off Beat lets members of The Columbian news team step back from our newspaper beats to write the story behind the story, fill in the story or just tell a story.