Harnessing the power of water

Tucked in the forest about a mile from upper Lithia Park is a hydroelectric power plant built in 1909 that still supplies 2 percent of Ashland's power.

Few people in the city know about the Reeder Gulch Power Plant — and even fewer have ever seen it, said Scott Johnson, longtime operations superintendent for the city's Electric Department, who retired in December.

"Hardly anybody knows," he said. "But it's up here still producing power."

Workers at the city's Water Treatment Plant stop by the power plant daily to record how many kilowatts it is generating and a meter technician checks on the facility once a week.

Besides that, it operates almost entirely on its own, producing electricity from the water flowing in Ashland Creek and transmitting it to the city via small power lines snaking through the watershed.

The power plant saves the city more than $150,000 annually in electric costs, said Lee Tuneberg, the city's administrative services and finance director. The rest of the city's electricity is purchased from the Bonneville Power Administration.

"It's always nice to see where we can save money, especially on wholesale power, by generating it ourselves and using it ourselves," he said. "It's a small cost savings, but it makes sense because we're using our local water supply to create hydropower as opposed to buying from Bonneville Power from the Columbia River System."

The hydroelectric plant saved the city $190,000 last fiscal year, and cost about $5,000 to maintain, which is typical for most years, Tuneberg and Johnson said. During some years, when upgrades have been necessary, the plant has cost about $30,000 to maintain, Johnson said.

It's unusual for a city to have its own hydroelectric plant, Johnson said.

"It's pretty rare," he said. "I would say most cities by far in Oregon don't have a hydro."

According to a city brochure, the Reeder Gulch Power Plant is the oldest municipal hydroelectric plant still operating in Oregon.

"There is a source of green power in this area — there's a little hydro up there that adds to the city's green program, along with solar and other things we may come up with," said Mike Metzker, a city meter relay technician.

The city built the hydroelectric plant to bring a reliable source of power to Ashland, after payment disagreements with Ashland Electric Power and Light Company, which had supplied the city's power since about 1886, according to city reports.

"It is still the cheapest source of electricity," Metzker said. "Any other source has to use some other fuel source, other than water."

The plant and its accompanying building, which is still in use today, cost $3,343 and was designed by Portland engineer Frank C. Kelsey.

The hydroelectric plant supplied all of the city's power until 1916, when population growth caused the city to need more electricity and it began buying it from private companies.

Between 1962 and 1984, the city shut down the power plant because its aging parts had begun to require expensive maintenance. In 1984, the city decided to replace the generator and other key components, enabling the Reeder Gulch plant to again operate efficiently.

In 2009, the Electric Department connected the power plant sensors to a computer, enabling the city to monitor it remotely.

The power plant, located at an altitude of 2,460 feet, sits on the east bank of Ashland Creek. About a mile up the mountain, past the plant, is Hostler Dam. The dam allows the amount of water the power plant is set up for to flow into it, turning a wheel which activates the generator and creates electricity. The water then flows out of the plant and rejoins the rest of the water in Ashland Creek.

Metzker said the city does regular environmental assessments on the plant to ensure it isn't harming the watershed.

"It's non-polluting and it doesn't have the side effects that some hydro plants do," he said.

The plant generates about 500 kilowatts of electricity and processes about 12 million gallons of water daily, Metzker said.

"I've heard it's enough power to run all of the street lights in the city," Johnson said.

Ashland uses about 42 megawatts of electricity each day, according to the Electric Department.

Inside the Reeder Gulch plant is a museum room with artifacts and photographs dating back to 1909, which Johnson helped create before he retired.

With improvements in dam and fish-passage technology, more communities are considering going back to hydroelectric power plants to supply electricity, he said.

"The entire industry is looking at it," he said. "They're starting to build little ones like ours."

For a free tour of the Reeder Gulch plant call the city's Electric Department at 541-488-5357.

Contact reporter Hannah Guzik at 541-708-1158 or hguzik@dailytidings.com.

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