Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Yes, Virginia, utilities can be historic too....

Lately I have been back to staring at my computer screen, and at images, of T-lines, Control Houses, Switchyards, Radio Stations and the various other pieces of the multi-state, thousands-of-miles long, Bonneville Power Administration Transmission System, all as part of wrapping up a draft cover document for a Multiple Property Submittal.  Documenting the history and significance of BPA to the Pacific Northwest has become rather second nature, but it's still a good story.  Now, by tying that story to the built resources that BPA manages, we’re breaking new ground, at least as concerns BPA’s development after 1945 and the end of its first “Period of Significance.”  That has got me thinking about electricity, hydropower, and all the work that I’ve done over the years for PGE, PacifiCorp, EWEB and others, now including BPA, who operate the sinuous network of lines that ties them all together, in one way or another.

Starting out in preservation my experience and understanding of electrical generation pretty much stopped at expecting the local utility to supply the power for my computer and cursing them out in those rare instances when their system was down.  Over the years, having worked for most of the larger (and many of the smaller) utilities in Oregon, I have gained not only an understanding of just how complex the system that ends at a duplex receptacle really is, but an appreciation for the engineers and others that put it all together over the past century.  I think people forget that here in the Northwest electricity didn’t really exist until the late 19th century and for many cities, and more rural areas, reliable, affordable, power is a post-WWII arrival.  There is a huge system of dams, and thermal plants, and now more and more “green” generation plants that chug away out of view to keep it so.

That's the Copco Dam, above.  It's scheduled for removal, if all the competing parties on the Klamath River can figure out who pays for it.  The Klamath Dams, like most early 20th century dam despite their recent bad press, are pretty incredible constructs.  Some engineer looked at a canyon a century ago and said “There.”  In the case of Copco, that engineer was John Christie Boyle, a fascinating, near Rennassiance-type, guy born in the tiny northern California town of Ft. Jones.  Directed by guys like Boyle, (or T.W. Sullivan, or J.D. Ross, or any number of other visionary leaders), workers with horses and, if they were lucky, steam engines, moved rock, and poured concrete and changed the course of the river to produce hydropower, still the most reliable form of energy production around.  Ever since, when the water flows, the turbines spin, and you get power out the other end.  Most dams, and much of the generation equipment within them, still rely on 19th century technology in large part, simply because the technology is so simple there is little beyond improved control and fish passage that can be done to improve it. It is fashionable now to think of dams as "fish killers" that should be removed and replaced with wind turbines or solar arrays.  There are problems with that, if you like knowing that when you flick a switch there will be power to it, no matter the season.  Nothing, as usual, is as simple as the advertising copy.

The picture below, of the T.W. Sullivan Power House, operated by PGE at West Linn, produces some 16mW of clean, non-greenhouse gas producing, electricity.  Sullivan began life as “Station B,” built by the Willamette Falls Electric Company in 1893.  It is the second oldest continuously operated hydroelectric powerhouse in the country. I can't speak for others, but I am rather glad its still in operation.

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