After a 3-year hiatus, the Olmsted hydroelectric power plant has a new look, new turbines and is ready to service water and power to residents throughout several area communities.
On Wednesday, hundreds of workers, political leaders, stake holders and residents made their way to the mouth of Provo Canyon and the new Olmsted campus for a day of celebrating the return to operations of the plant.
Located in Orem, both Provo and Orem benefit from its water and power.
“It’s an amazing celebration,” said Timothy R. Petty, assistant secretary for water and science at the U.S. Department of Interior.
The cost of the new plant was $42 million.
“This is the next level of engineering,” Petty said. “Hydropower is unique for communities. It represents a unique partnership between the federal government, the state and local (organizations) to really accomplish (what is needed) for the communities.”
Steve Johnson of the Colorado River Project said, “This offers clean, renewable, reliable energy that will run for 100 years.”
Mark Gabriel, CEO of the Western Area Power Administration and a partner in the project, noted that the history of the technology from 100 years ago hasn’t changed. The computers that run the plant are.
“The plant will pump water — carbon-free water — and WAPA provides the power (from it) to 40 million Americans,” Gabriel said.
He also noted that people only pay for what they use. “It’s a take-all, pay-all project.”
The Olmsted plant is a “run of the river” plant, meaning that power is generated only when water demands from downstream users require water deliveries.
“Its not an easy thing to do to take power and plug it into a grid,” said Gary Winterton, Provo Municipal Council chairman. “It’s a unique and wonderful place.”
Winterton said his best recollection of the Olmsted plant was the old green pipe that looked like a huge snake winding through the canyon, and the spillways of water just above the plant.
Gene Shawcroft, general manager of the Central Utah Water Conservancy District, said, “By having power here allows us to have water rights and store water in the Jordanelle Reservoir.”
In fact, that is why Olmsted is working again, it’s about water rights. Shawcroft said Olmsted had seven years to power up or lose water rights; it is a state water rights law.
The water runs to Utah Lake, which holds the oldest water rights in the state, he noted.
“We had to have it done,” Shawcroft said.
He noted the project was paid half by the federal government and half by the CUWCD.
According to plant workers and stakeholders, the worst-case scenario at the new plant isn’t an earthquake, fire or terrorism, it’s drought.
“The amount of water available depends on Mother Nature,” Shawcroft said. “Everybody loses in a drought.”
They have also been monitoring the Pole Creek Fire and Bald Mountain Fire where numerous underground pipes are buried and supply water to central and southern Utah.
Historically, the project is a part of the Central Utah Project that was started in the 1950s to harness water for much of the Southwest. Olmsted is fed by Jordanelle Reservoir that finished completion and was filled in 1996.
As part of the new buildout on the Olmsted campus, there is a new museum, housed in the old facility, that shows photos of the old campus and items used in everyday life from the blacksmiths tools to the old non-electric clothing irons used by students and residents in the small enclave.
The old Olmsted plant that was shut down in 2015 has its own fascinating history starting with Lucien L. (LL) Nunn (Nunn’s Park), a Colorado miner who saw the need for an inexpensive, reliable power source to power mine mills.
He was intrigued with the power of falling water and the potential to generate power using turbines.
After a long search, Nunn found that water in Provo Canyon and gave George Westinghouse $50,000 in gold to develop an alternating current power system.
Fay Devaux (Fred) Olmsted, an engineer from Michigan, designed the wooden flume from the Provo River diversion to the new location as well as the generating station.
Nunn opened a station in 1897, but decided to build a plant closer to the mouth of the canyon. Before the plan was completed, Fred Olmsted died of tuberculosis and the plant was subsequently named after him. It opened in 1904.
What most area residents may not know is that Nunn turned his interests to education and on the Olmsted campus built the Telluride Institute, the second college for the study of electrical engineering in the world, according to historical records at the plant.
The institute contained living quarters, library, classrooms and a kitchen. An affiliated structure was the laboratory constructed across the lawn. Students studied history, English, German, algebra, geometry, physics, drawing, public speaking and theory.
The Telluride Institute, founded by LL Nunn, is still in existence today at Cornell University.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Utah Power and Light, who purchased the Olmsted Station from Telluride Power, saw an opportunity to build sales of electrical appliances according to the plant’s historical accounts.
“They decided to build a house on the plant site where they could demonstrate the use of the new electrical appliances,” said K.C. Shaw, chief engineer at CUWCD. “They called it the ‘House of Ideas.’ This Art Modern-style house contained the most up-to-date electrical appliances. The house opened on May 28, 1937, and by July 18 had more than 10,384 people visit.”
During its time, the house had more than 50,000 visitors, many who came from foreign countries to see how electricity worked in homes.
The deteriorating remains of home, the three-story college with is turn-of-the-century architecture and a handful of other homes, still stand within a grove of trees and pathways on the campus.