Timeline of Electricity, Hydroelectricity and The Northwest

Mankind has a long history of observing electrical events. From the beginning of time lightning has been one of nature’s most awesome displays of electricity. Our experience with electricity, development of hydropower and its use in the Northwest can be chronicled as follows:

  • 500 B.C.: Thales, a Greek philosopher observed that amber, a fossilized type of tree sap attracted bits of paper and certain materials, like straw, when rubbed. This is the first mention of static electricity.
  • 551 A.D.: Jerome Cardan, an Italian mathematician, determines that while amber attracts light objects, a magnetic black stone attracts only iron. This is the first in a series of discoveries that link electricity to magnetism.
  • 1600: William Gilbert discovers that materials like glass, sulfur and even diamonds behave just like amber. He calls these materials electrics, which means amber in Latin.
  • 1646: Walter Charlton coins the word electricity to explain the attraction between these substances.
  • 1672: Otto von Guericke (GAY-rih-kuh) molds a large sphere out of sulfur. Holding a piece of wool against this spinning sphere produces a large spark. This is the first generator to use friction to create electricity.
  • 1729: Steven Gray becomes the first scientist to discover that metals are conductors and non-metals are non-conductors.
  • 1745: Peter Van Musschenbroek, (MEW-sen-brook), University of Leyden, Netherlands invents the Leyden Jar, which stores an electric charge.
  • 1746: Benjamin Franklin proposes the theory of positive and negative attraction and repulsion.
  • 1752: Benjamin Franklin flies a kite during a thunderstorm with a key dangling on the end of a wire. A silk string collects a charge from the thunderclouds which is conducted into the Leyden Jar. Thus, he makes the connection between lightning and electricity. This experiment leads to his invention of the lightning rod.
  • 1794: Allessandro Volta creates the first continuous electrical current by making a battery out of silver and zinc strips placed in salty water. Prior to this discovery all man-made electrical sources came from static, like rubbing some glass or sulphur.
  • 1800: The first commercial battery is manufactured. Scientists realize that if chemical changes can create electricity, then electricity can create chemical change.
  • 1800: William Nicholson uses electrical current to split water into two gasses, hydrogen and oxygen.
  • 1807: Humphrey Davy uses electrical current to break up certain rocky substances, discovering new metals.
  • 1819: Hans Christian Oersted creates a magnet with electrical current, establishing, once and for all, the connection between electricity and magnetism.
  • 1829: Joseph Henry develops a coil magnet that grows stronger as you wind more wire around an iron core. He succeeds in lifting more than a ton of metal.
  • 1831: Michael Faraday creates the first electrical generator by using a magnet and a spinning copper plate to produce a current. Using a steam engine to keep the copper plate spinning within the magnetic field, electrical current is produced.
  • 1831: Joseph Henry, by reversing Faraday’s discovery, passes an electrical current through a magnetic field to turn a copper wheel, creating the first electric motor. For the first time in history, electrical energy can be used to power machines to do work that was formerly done by humans and animals.
  • 1844: Samuel F. B. Morse builds the first electric telegraph. By transmitting short or long signals along a wire, messages can be sent anywhere. The Morse code makes it possible to send messages long distances at the speed of light. You can now send a message across the United States in 1/60th of a second.
  • 1876: Alexander Graham Bell invents the telephone by converting electrical impulses into sound.
  • 1879: Thomas Alva Edison invents the light bulb and creates artificial light for a new generation. Edison, over the next 50 years, creates more than 1,000 inventions related to electricity and its uses. These include the phonograph, ticker tape machine, and the motion picture camera and projector. Edison is considered the father of electricity as we know it.
  • 1886: There are 40 to 50 water-powered electric plants reported to be online or under construction.
  • 1887: Nikola Tesla invents a motor that produces alternating current. This discovery changes the way electricity is transmitted over long distances.
  • 1889: Two hundred electric companies are listed as using hydropower for some or all of their generation.
  • 1889: The first commercial, long distance transmission of electricity in the world takes place when a direct-current line provides power from Willamette Falls for street lights in Portland.
  • 1891: First municipal electric sytem in Northwest — Ellensburg, Washington.
  • 1895: The first hydroelectric generator at Niagara Falls, New York, produces alternating current from a Tesla design.
  • 1908: First electric generating plant is built on the Columbia River by Hanford Irrigation & Power Company at Priest Rapids.
  • 1920: The Federal Water Power Act of 1920 authorizes the first Federal Power Commission, which has authority to issue licenses for hydroelectric projects that are best adapted to the comprehensive development of a waterway. This commission later became the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). FERC’s responsibilities to oversee water resources expands with the Flood Control Act of 1938 and future Flood Control Acts, the River and Harbor Act of 1945 and subsequent River and Harbor Acts, the Water Resources Planning Act of 1965, the wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, the Electric Consumers Protection Act of 1986 and the Energy Policy Act of 1992.
  • 1921 – 1992: Federal Energy Regulatory Commission statistics show hydropower generation increases from 3,700 megawatts to 91,600 megawatts, a 25 fold increase.
  • 1930: Washington and Oregon voters approve laws creating Public (called People’s in Oregon) Utility Districts (PUDs). A PUD has its own policy board elected by local voters. PUDs were developed to assure the public that benefits of hydroelectric generation were maximized while assuring low cost reliable service.
  • 1933: Construction of Grand Coulee Dam begins. Originally built to meet irrigation needs, it has more electric generating capacity than any dam in North America.
  • 1935: Federal Water Power Act becomes part of the Federal Power Act to regulate interstate commerce in electricity.
  • 1937: The Bonneville Project Act creates The Bonneville Power Administration (BPA). For the Northwest, this agency markets electricity generated at Federal hydro projects to particular industrial users and utilities that distribute it to homes and businesses. Although BPA does not own or operate hydroelectric projects, it does own the nation’s largest network of long-distance, high-voltage transmission lines needed to bring hydropower to market.
  • 1948: Vanport Flood on Columbia River destroys Vanport, OR. which is never rebuilt. This leads to a coordinated flood control program by Army Corps of Engineers to develop a multi-use reservoir storage plan for the Columbia River Basin.
  • 1956: Celilo Village, a traditional Indian tribal fishing ground, is flooded by the Dalles Dam. The sovereign rights of tribes lead to several court cases and agreements that affect use of rivers and hydropower.
  • 1961: The United States and Canada sign The Columbia River Treaty. Under the treaty, Canada builds two storage dams and one dam for generation, resulting in greater power and flood control benefits at U.S. facilities downstream.
  • 1964: The Pacific Northwest Coordination Agreement is signed by the Bureau of Reclamation, the Army Corps of Engineers, BPA, and 15 public and private generating utilities. This agreement seeks to meet the region’s electricity needs most efficiently by operating the diverse generating resources as a coordinated system, as if they were owned by a single utility.
  • 1966: The Public Power Council is formed to give a voice to publicly owned utilities in the Northwest. PPC represents and advocates the common legal and technical interests of the Northwest’s consumer owned utilities.
  • 1967: The Pacific Northwest-Pacific Southwest Intertie connects the Northwest with California. This is the only direct way to move electricity between the Northwest and California. Billions of dollars are saved by the Northwest trading some spring and summer surplus power for fall and winter power from California.
  • 1973: Congress passes the Endangered Species Act (ESA). This law protects species of plants and animals that the federal government considers threatened or endangered.
  • 1978: Congress passes Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA). This law requires utilities to purchase electricity from qualified independent power producers. Portions of the act helped stimulate growth of small scale hydro plants as a means of meeting the nation’s energy needs.
  • 1980: Congress passes The Pacific Northwest Electric Power Planning and Conservation Act. The Northwest Power Planning Council is formed. The Council is charged with developing a plan to meet Northwest energy needs. The act also called for the Council to develop a fish and wildlife mitigation and enhancement plan.
  • 1986: Congress amends the Federal Power Act, increasing environmental review of hydropower projects.
  • 1988: The Northwest Power Planning Council designates 44,000 miles of Northwest streams as “protected areas” because of their importance as critical fish and wildlife habitat.
  • 1991 – 1995: Council estimates that fish and wildlife protection reduced firm (that which is considered assured) electric generation by about 850 megawatts annually.
  • 1992: Sockeye salmon and three other stocks of chinook salmon are placed on the endangered species list.
  • 1994: Court rules that the 1993 Biological Opinion, which guides coordinated use of Columbia River System, fails to meet legal standards associated with the Endangered Species Act.
  • 1994: For this year, BPA projects its spending for fish and wildlife programs to be about $350 million dollars.
  • 1994: The U.S. Supreme Court rules that states have the authority under the Clean Water Act to establish minimum streamflows at hydro projects. The ruling gives states more authority in hydro licensing and relicensing decisions, previously the domain of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
  • 1994: U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit rules that the Northwest Power Planning Council did not give proper deference to the recommendation of state resource agencies and tribes in preparing its Fish and Wildlife Program.
  • 1994: The Foundation for Water and Energy Education is created.
  • 1995: New Biological Opinions released by National Marine Fisheries Services (NMFS) and United States Fish and Wildlife Services (USFWS). Court decisions affirm that the 1995 Biological Opinions are the guidelines for operating the hydro system in light of the Endangered Species Act. In the NMFS Biological Opinions, salmon recovery at the 14 Federal Projects is given priority over all other areas except flood control.
  • 1995 – 2011: 55 hydroelectric project licenses were renewed (completed relicensing). Collectively, this represents over 7,200 megawatts of electricity, or enough power to meet the needs of over four and a half million homes. 30-50 year licenses to private and publicly owned hydroelectric projects (not including federal projects operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation) result in millions of dollars spent annually to address environmental, cultural, recreational and other needs resulting from project operation.
  • 1995 – 2011: Federal hydroelectric projects operated by the U.S. Army Corps and Bureau of Reclamation invest hundreds of millions of dollars to mitigate fish and wildlife effects of these projects. To improve fishery survival, efforts focus on infrastructure investments such as improved turbines and fish passage facilities; restoring/preserving habitat; and releasing water (rather than storing it for future energy production). Since 2000, over two billion dollars in fish and wildlife projects have been funded.
  • 1995: New biological opinion affirms 1993 biologic opinion conclusion that dams jeopardize salmon and steelhead. Standards are proposed for spill, flow, reservoir levels and barging juvenile fish downstream. Salmon recovery at the 14 Federal Projects is given priority over all other areas except flood control. Hydrosystem operations and structural improvements at the dams are designed to achieve dam passage performance standards of 96% per dam passage juvenile survival for spring migrants and 93% per dam passage survival for summer migrants.
  • 1998: Upper Columbia steelhead listed as endangered; Snake River and lower Columbia steelhead listed as threatened.
  • 1999: Six more Columbia basin salmon and steelhead listed as endangered or threatened.
  • 2000 – 2004: National Wildlife Federation, fishing and conservation groups challenge 2000 biologic opinion; Oregon and four Native tribes join. In 2003, Judge James A. Redden takes case, rejects NOAA’s biologic opinion, saying it doesn’t protect salmon harmed by dams. Since 1990 all Columbia River biological opinions were remanded (sent back to NOAA) with instructions to improve it by complying with the Endangered Species Act (ESA).With a nine-agency federal caucus, NOAA releases a new biological opinion focused on hydropower, habitat, hatcheries and harvests for 10 years. New NOAA biologic opinion adjusts spill, says dams do not threaten salmon survival.
  • 2005 – 2007: Redden again remands biologic opinion to NOAA for violating the Endangered Species Act and overlooking dams’ risk, orders summer spill at three Snake River dams and one Columbia River dam.
  • 2006: Washington State voters approve Initiative I-937. The initiative requires large utilities to obtain 15% of their electricity from new renewable resources such as solar and wind by 2020 with incremental steps of 3% by 2012 and 9% by 2016. Hydropower is excluded unless additional generation comes from improvements to current facilities (efficiency gains), or new projects that don’t result in new water diversions or impoundments.
  • 2007: The Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) and the Northwest Power and Conservation Council adopt a regional plan to integrate 6,000 megawatts of wind into the region’s power grid by the early 2020s, enough electricity to power 4.5 million homes annually.
  • 2008: Federal agencies, five tribes and two states sign 10-year outline for fish and habitat projects, known as The Fish Accords.
  • 2008 – 2011: Interaction between federal court and NOAA results in revised biological opinion that is considered acceptable through 2013. The revised biologic opinion for salmon and steelhead on the Columbia and Snake rivers provides an Adaptive Management Implementation Plan, offering options and tools to provide insurance for fish survival and recovery based on “on the ground,” measurable conditions. Court orders new biological opinion by January 1, 2014.
  • 2009: Of 6,000 megawatt goal for new wind energy established in 2007, 3,000 megawatts already brought on line.
  • 2010: The Bonneville Power Administration and Army Corps of Engineers initiate two year review process of the Columbia River Treaty. A recommendation to the U.S. State Department will result in Canada and the United States either maintaining the treaty in its current form, or initiating negotiations that can potentially affect when and how much water flows through the Columbia River.
  • 2010: $89 million in Recovery Act funding is added to another $89 million contributed by the Bonneville Power Administration to develop smart grid technology in the Northwest. Smart grid technology includes a wide range of products (from appliances in homes to sensors on transmission lines) that monitor electricity generation, usage and delivery in real time. By exchanging real time data, operators can more efficiently deliver power during times of high load requirements. This is considered essential to both integrating intermittent wind power into the power grid, and reducing the need for new power generation sources in the future.
  • 2011: A new federal judge, Michael Simon, is assigned to determine if future biologic opinions meet ESA and other statutory requirements. Simon becomes the third judge (following Malcolm Marsh and James Redden) to fill this role since 1990.
  • 2011: As wind integration increases in the Pacific Northwest, system operators struggle to balance this intermittent power source with a stable and reliable source. Although the hydropower system performs this power balancing function well, its limits are quickly being reached.
  • 2011: Bonneville Power Administration develops rules challenged by wind operators to determine when wind generation should be curtailed during times when hydropower and wind generation is, collectively, higher than electric demand. FERC (the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) rules in favor of the wind power developers, stating that BPA’s policy “diminishes open access to transmission and results in Bonneville providing transmission service to others on terms and conditions that are not comparable to those it provides itself.”
  • 2012: New projection is that 6,000 megawatts of new wind energy will be integrated into the system by end of 2013, about ten years earlier than planned. The hydropower system and smart grid technology is critical to integrating this intermittent renewable energy source into the power grid.