1880 : World’s First Commercial Hydroelectric Power Plant Launched

July 24, 2024 all-day

Grand Rapids Electric Light & Power Company — the earliest predecessor of Consumers Energy of Jackson, Michigan — began operation of the world’s first commercial central station hydroelectric power plant on Saturday, July 24, 1880, getting power from Wolverine Chair and Furniture Company’s water turbine.

Grand Rapids Electric Light and Power Company

Grand Rapids Electric Light & Power Company buildings (left to right) William T. Powers’ Sawmill built in 1868 and used from September 1880 to November 1881, G.R.E.L.&P. First Hydroelectric Power Plant with steam-engine backup system (Winter 1880–81), City Lighting Plant (Nov 1881), north brick building possibly late-1880s. Photo circa late-1890s.

The rest of the story:

Grand Rapids lays claim to the first hydroelectric power plant in the world, and the first to supply commercial electric lighting service. Among the big figures in the use of water power for the city’s infant furniture industry was William T. Powers an enterprising manufacturer. In 1865 and 1866 he purchased the necessary river frontage and in the two following years constructed the West Side Water Power Canal, completing it in September 1868. He became interested in electricity after he had heard of an exhibit to take place at the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia in 1877, of an electric carbon-arc lighting system. Powers organized the Grand Rapids Electric Light & Power Company, March 22, 1880, which incorporated the following week on March 30, 1880.

Associated with William T. Powers in this venture were William H. Powers (son of William T.), Amasas B. Watson, James Blair, Henry Spring, John L. Shaw, Thomas M. Peck, and Sluman S. Bailey. The company acquired a sixteen-light (Charles) Brush generator which was installed in the factory of the Wolverine Chair and Furniture Company. The machine was belt-driven from the line shafting of the factory, and this was driven by a waterwheel operated by water from the West Side Power Canal.

On Saturday evening, July 24, 1880, the first electric light glowed in Grand Rapids. The customers whose premises were for the first time so illuminated were Sweet’s Hotel, Powers’ Opera House, E. S. Pierce’s Clothing Store, Spring & Company’s Dry Goods Store, Mill & Lacey’s Drug Store, A. Preusser’s jewelry store, and the Star Clothing House. The brilliant new lights proved such a drawing card for the merchants that the demand soon outgrew the capacity of the original installation, and the little machine was moved to Powers’ sawmill at the downstream end of the canal, and the capacity was increased by the installation of a new forty-light generator. The growth of the business, augmented by a street lighting contract made March 29, 1881, justified more extensive operations. Powers transferred from the West Side Water Power Company to the Grand Rapids Electric Light & Power Company sixteen first run of stone, amounting to two hundred and forty horsepower (256 HP). (A “run-of-stone” was a millers measure. A dam in a given area of a certain size in a certain stream was calculated to have enough power to run a given number of grindstones of more or less standard size.) On May 27, 1881, a contract was awarded to John H. Hoskin for the construction of a permanent power house to be completed by August 1, 1881. It was actually completed Nov 1, 1881.

The operation provided arc lighting — a technique where an electric spark in the air between two conductors produces a light. The Grand Rapids operation used direct current technology.

The first U.S. commercial installation of an alternating current hydropower plant occurred at the Redlands Power Plant in California in 1893. Alternating current allowed power to be transmitted longer distances so became the more common method of delivery.

Sources :

History of electric power transmission wikipedia entry

History of Hydropower courtesy of Energy.gov

Powers Behind Grand Rapids : Grand Rapids Electric Light and Power Company blog post.

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