On This Day

fox river
Royalbroil/CCA 2.5
Fox River, upon which the Vulcan
Street Plant was built.

On This Day: First Hydroelectric Plant Opens

September 30, 2011 06:00 AM
by Caleb March
On Sept. 30, 1882, the world’s first hydroelectric power plant, the Vulcan Street Plant, began operation in Wisconsin, producing enough energy to supply three buildings.

Appleton Edison Light Company

Thomas Edison opened the world’s first commercial power plant in New York City on Sept. 4, 1882. When H.J. Rogers, president of the Appleton Paper & Pulp Company, heard about Edison’s plant, he gathered local support to build a similar plant on the Fox River in Appleton, Wis.

Rogers’ plant used hydroelectric power instead of steam; since his paper mills were already located next to the Fox River, he had the perfect opportunity for harnessing hydroelectric power.

The Vulcan Street Plant, as it was first known, was built using an Edison-invented type “K” dynamo generator. The generator produced approximately 12.5 kilowatts of electricity, enough to power Rogers’ home and his two paper mills.

After a failed opening on Sept. 27, Rogers succeeded in opening the station three days later, to the amazement of the local community.

The plant, run by the Appleton Edison Light Company under Rogers’ supervision, experienced many problems during the first years of operation. The biggest problem was that the electricity could not be regulated, putting the electrical output of the generator at the mercy of the river’s intensity. Other issues arose because there had not yet been invented a means of measuring the electricity used by individuals; people who wanted to buy electricity from Rogers’s plant had to pay a flat monthly rate.

The Progress of Hydroelectric Power

Nikola Tesla was the first person to use a hydroelectric power plant to distribute power on a wide scale. In 1896, Tesla’s work at the Niagara Falls power plant in New York enabled the plant to send electricity to Buffalo, N.Y., a distance of about 26 miles.

By the early 1900s, more than 40 percent of electricity in the United States was produced by hydroelectric power, and in the 1940s, hydroelectricity accounted for about a third of the country’s electricity supply.

In 1902, Congress passed the Reclamation Act to develop irrigation and water supplies in areas of the country where water shortages were creating economic and health problems. During the Depression, the Reclamation Act played an important role in revitalizing the American economy.

Hydroelectric power plants were built at the Hoover Dam on the Arizona-Nevada border, the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington, and the Central Valley Project in California. American mobilization for World War II also increased the demand for hydroelectric power, and spawned many government-funded projects.

Today, about 7 percent of electricity in the United States is hydroelectric, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Hydroelectric Power Around the World

The Itaipu Dam, a joint project between Brazil and Paraguay, is one of the largest hydroelectric power plants in the world. Completed in 1991, the five-mile-long dam produced 25 percent of the electric supply in Brazil and 78 percent in Paraguay by 1995.

The controversial Three Gorges Dam in China remains the world’s largest dam structure. Built on the Yangtze River in central China, the dam is over 600 feet tall and houses 26 generators.

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