Intentionally or not, Henry Rogers made history from his living room.
The wealthy Wisconsinite had done well for himself as the executive of a successful paper company. To commemorate his success, he commissioned a gift for his wife — America’s first electrically lit home.
Power was a rare commodity in 1882. Unlike other men of wealth who may have desired electric light, Rogers had the benefit of circumstance. He lived near his company’s two paper mills, one of which housed a dynamo that powered them both. The dynamo had capacity to spare, thanks to the hydroelectricity from America’s first commercial power station — the Appleton Edison Light Company.
Today, Southwest Washington’s energy supply is so abundant, redundant and ubiquitous many have only the broadest idea of how it powers our lives. Our region runs on hydropower, but few understand, and almost never see, the elaborate supply networks and round-the-clock efforts that energize our communities.
“Moving power from the point of generation, across the region and into our cities is a complicated process with many hands involved,” said Clark Public Utilities Director of Operations Gene Morris. “Utility employees work 24 hours a day every single day of the year to deliver the safe and reliable power our customers rely on.”
Columbia River Basin hydroelectric dams produce around 63 percent of the energy Clark Public Utilities customers consume. The utility’s River Road Generating Plan produces about 28.5 percent of our power. The rest comes by a combination of nuclear, wind and other sources.
As quickly as its generated, electricity moves to a transformer station and is stepped up from around 14,000 volts to between 100,000 and 765,000 — depending on how far it must travel.
Transmission lines carry electricity to community utilities such as Clark Public Utilities. Utilities are responsible for supplying it to customers.
Utility substations are a transition point from high voltage transmission to lower voltage distribution. The electricity is lowered to tens of thousands of volts — levels good for local distribution but too high for residential consumers. Substations are placed around a service area, but only after years of planning and careful consideration of load growth and demand changes.
After leaving the substations, electricity goes to distribution transformers. These facilities are all around our neighborhoods, either inside big green boxes or they’re those large gray cylinders mounted on power poles.
Transformers step down power to 120/240 volts, a level suitable for residential use. From there, the electricity runs along wires connected to a meter at the side of your home or business. Occasionally customers need more than what the average transformer delivers. In those cases, the utility can create custom feeds.
Regardless of the customer’s needs, the utility ensures a constant flow from supply to demand.
“Balancing a distribution system is one of the most critical components of operating a utility,” Morris said. “A stable system prevents outages, keeps the system strong and sound and ensures our customers receive good, consistent electricity.”
The average residential customer might not notice small fluctuations in their supply, but many appliances do. As consumer electronics have gotten more sophisticated, they’ve become more sensitive to power quality. To that same point certain industries, such as computer chip manufacturers, are highly sensitive to minor power fluctuations.
Clark Public Utilities delivers roughly 4.8 billion kilowatt hours of electricity annually to about 203,000 customers with a grid of 6,600 miles of electric lines, 62,000 poles and 55 substations and it takes its responsibility very serious.
“We heavily invest in our assets,” Morris said. “We constantly look for ways to improve our system and keep our service as affordable and sound as possible.”
Energy Adviser is written by Clark Public Utilities. Send questions to email@example.com or to Energy Adviser, c/o Clark Public Utilities, P.O. Box 8900, Vancouver, WA 98688.