Thirty years after becoming a state, Oregon became home to the nation’s first “long distance” system to transmit electricity at a location promoted as the “Niagara Falls of the West.”
In 1888, construction began on the Portland General Electric (PGE) T. W. Sullivan Hydroelectric Plant. Located at Willamette Falls due south of Portland, the hydroelectric dam opened as Station A on 03 June 1889. It is the oldest operating dam west of the Mississippi River.
When the hydroplant opened, AC power* travelled 14 miles from its origin in Oregon City to the streetlights of Portland.
This was the dawn of long-distance hydropower. Station B opened in 1895 on the West Linn side of the river. Station A closed in 1897, having been rendered obsolete by changes in technology. PGE began in 1891.
PGE named Station B ‘T. W. Sullivan’ in 1953. As chief engineer Sullivan designed the Willamette Falls plant as well as the “entire Clackamas hydroelectric system,” according to PGE archaeologist Mini Sharma-Ogle.
In 1953, the plant generated 16,000 kilowatts, which it still does today. PGE runs 13 original power units at T. W. Sullivan. “We’ve made them work for over 100 years. So PGE is very proud of that,” Sharma-Ogle said.
In 2008, T. W. Sullivan received national “Low-Impact” Certification “for its cool water temperatures and flow control structures resulting in a noteworthy 97-98% fish-smolt survival rate.”
Falling water powered machines, DC v AC current
Romans used falling water to power waterwheels that ground (“milled”) grain into flour. The industrial revolution brought the water turbine, which was more efficient than waterwheels. In the mid-1800s, Massachusetts water turbines powered the looms that created cloth.
In the 1870s Thomas Edison “perfected his incandescent light bulb.” In 1882, he opened Pearl Street Station in New York City and began creating a demand for electricity.
Solving the difficulty of long-distance transmission led to “the battle of the currents” –Edison’s low-voltage direct current (DC) versus the high-voltage alternating current (AC) championed by the brilliant and eccentric Nikola Tesla and the manufacturing giant George Westinghouse. Direct current powered Edison’s incandescent bulb, but the current could travel only one-half mile from his Pearl Street Station. The potential of AC current soared with refinement of the transformer in 1885.
Also 1882, the world’s first central DC hydroelectric station powered a paper mill in Appleton, Wisconsin. There was not yet a power “grid” transmitting power any distance.
In 1885, the first hydroelectric dam in the Pacific Northwest opened in Spokane. It was used “to light several street corners in downtown Spokane near the Spokane River.”
By 1902, hydroelectric power plants at Niagara Falls produced one-fifth of all the electricity in the United States.