How do the Niagara Falls generate electricity

The first large hydropower plant was built 120 years ago

The first large hydropower plant was commissioned on the Niagara Falls in 1895. The power plant itself was less revolutionary. Rather, it was the breakthrough of the AC voltage network that made it possible for the first time to separate energy generation and use over a wide area.

August 25, 1895 was a milestone in the modern generation of electricity and its widespread distribution. On this day 120 years ago, the “Niagara Power Station No. 1 “to the network. It was the first large hydropower plant. Up to this point one power station in England had been the leader. The Niagara Power Station was later renamed the Edward Dean Adams Power Plant. The power plant initially had three Westinghouse generators, each of which achieved an output of 3.7 MW with an output voltage of 2000 V. The commissioning of this power plant was of worldwide importance because it was the beginning of the triumphant advance of the then still young electricity energy.

The increasing demand for electricity in New York soon led to a significant expansion of the power plant. Seven more equally powerful machines were added successively, increasing the total output to 37 MW.

These generators were very robust and extremely economical. They were not switched off until 1961 after the completion of the new Robert Moses Power Plant and the associated Lewiston pumped storage plant.

The idea of ​​harnessing the immense hydropower of Niagara Falls and the Niagara River existed many years before. Daniel Joncairs is the first to succeed in this. In 1759 he built a small canal above the falls and used it to drive the water wheel of his sawmill. At the beginning of the 19th century, the brothers Augustus and Peter Porter came up with the idea of ​​diverting the water from the falls and using a network of canals and pipes to direct it to the adjacent industry. But the project was not completed. Not until 1861 was there a large water wheel on a new 2 m deep side canal. However, the wheel only supplied mechanical energy for one customer: the Charles Gaskill grain mill.

Jacob Schoellkopf bought the canal and the water wheel in 1877. First he implemented the idea of ​​the Porter brothers and directed the water to seven other mills, but he quickly realized that it was better to convert the hydropower into electricity and then distribute it. In 1882 he built a small power station with a DC generator at the end of the canal, which supplied the factories within a radius of around 3 km. Ten years later, a small power plant was built on the Canadian side that generated 2.2 kW - about as much as a hairdryer or vacuum cleaner needs today.

The problem that all these early hydroelectric plants had was how to transmit electricity over long distances, because the energy was not needed where it was generated. For example, the energy generated at the Niagara Falls could not be transferred to the factories in Buffalo, even though they were only 25 km away.

The Niagara Falls Power Company therefore offered $ 100,000 in prize money for a proposal to transmit power over long distances. A joint project by George Westinghouse and the Croatian-born Nikola Tesla finally met with success. In 1883 a lighting system was switched on at Niagara Falls, which only used AC voltage.

The big breakthrough came with the Power Station No. 1. The 2000 V alternating voltage of the generators was stepped up to 10,000 V for the supply of the local area and the voltage was increased to 20,000 V for the connection of more distant places such as Lockport and Tonawanda. Thanks to the new alternating voltage transformer technology, the factories in Buffalo were able to enjoy Niagara energy on November 15, 1896.