It no longer costs the East Valley Water District anything to operate the Philip A. Disch Water Treatment Plant 134. In fact, it makes a profit thanks to two hydroelectric turbines generating excess power that feeds into the Southern California Edison grid.
Chris Carrillo, chairman of the board of directors, accepted a $231,650 check — part of the self-generation incentive program — from Edison at the ribbon-cutting ceremony on Thursday, Sept. 20.
It’s another milestone for the district, General Manager John Mura told a gathering of water officials, workers, Edison representatives and the companies that designed the turbines and other parts of the project. The $4.4 million generators are in their own small building at the plant northeast of Highway 330 and Highland Avenue.
“For several years now, East Valley Water District has really put a lot of emphasis on making our investments become more energy efficient,” Mura said.
The district has worked with Edison and other partners to evaluate some of its older technology and replace it with more reliable and efficient equipment, he said.
“We’re excited to have our first hydro–generation facility,” he said. “It has been up and down for awhile, but we’re really, really excited to finally be generating electricity.”
The turbines have been ready for months, but the project had to wait until the Valley District changed the route of a pipeline from in front of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians’ casino to the back. The old pipeline was left in the ground so the district wouldn’t need to dig up the parking lot.
The tribe paid for the $10 million project, which took seven months to move 1,450 feet of the 78-inch Foothill Pipeline.
The district has worked aggressively with its energy partners to make smart investments to reduce costs for the district and its ratepayers, Mura said.
The turbines will generate 1 million kilowatt hours of energy a year. The district constructed a half a mile of pipe through which water flows at 160 pounds per square inch of pressure to turn the turbines.
Using a process called conduit hydroelectricity, the generation system routes high-pressure water from Lake Silverwood to Plant 134. As water passes through the turbines, the system’s induction generators spin to create an electrical current. This same action helps decrease water pressure to allow for treatment and delivery to EVWD customers.
The plant will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 1.5 million pounds and save $76,000 per year.
There is a large turbine that can be used when water use is at its highest in the summer and a small turbine for the winter, explained Janice Gainey, senior project manager for Nline Energy. In times of extreme demand, both turbines can spin.
Both were turning during the tour. It was loud but not deafening. Rainey almost had to shout as she showed her guests around.
Gene Goodenough, a senior vice president with Nline Energy, said the rising cost of energy has made smaller hydro-electric plants a wise investment.
The company was founded by CEO Matt Swindle in 2010 in El Dorado Hills near Sacramento. The turbines follow designs by Nikola Tesla, a pioneer in hydroelectric power whose work led to the revolutionary use of alternative current for the Mill Creek No. 1 hydro plant in 1893. Elon Musk named his car company after the renowned electrical engineer.
The turbines don’t actually run the water treatment plant, Mura said. The electricity goes right onto the grid and the district gets credits from Edison. This helps Edison, which is obligated to create renewable energy as part of California’s goal of generating a third of its power from renewable sources by 2020, half by 2035 and 100 percent by 2045.
Edison’s self-generation incentive program offers a cash incentive of 50 cents to $4.25 per watt generated by renewable sources.
“Plant 134 has the capability of treating up to 8 million gallons of water per day, and this facility will use the power of water to maximize the benefit of this infrastructure investment,” Mura said.
A diversified portfolio
“The East Valley Water District is really in an enviable position in terms of our redundancy,” he said. “We’re blessed to have our own surface water that we divert from the Santa Ana River, we’re grateful the investments that Valley District made in terms of imported water from Northern California.”
About three-quarters of the district’s water supply is pumped out of the basin.
“We’re really about protecting our natural resources and we are dependent heavily on electricity,” Mura said. “People think that water just falls out of the sky, and that certainly does happen, but the challenge that we face every day is digging to the right spot and moving it around.”
Mura thanked the Valley District for agreeing to let it take charge of the Sterling Natural Resource Center and for providing a $2.7 million low-interest loan for the hydroelectric plant. The crowd applauded.
“East Valley Water District is a great partner,” said Mark Bulot, president of the Valley District board. “Our board and staff at Valley District are thrilled that past board and staff members’ vision for renewable energy is realized.”
Mura described the East Valley project as “just a drop” in the big picture of hydroelectric power in San Bernardino County. Edison operates 33 major hydroelectric plants — 24 that generate less than 30 megawatts, known as “small hydro.” Nine other plants generate more.
In 2017, California’s 269 hydroelectric plants generated 43,333 gigawatt-hours providing 21 percent of the state’s energy, according to the California Energy Commission website.
Mill Creek No. 1
The county has a rich history of hydroelectric power.
Mill Creek No. 1 was built in 1893 to power the Union Ice Co. in Mentone to chill oranges being shipped to the east, said Edison researcher Daniel W. Heinrich in an article on the plant’s induction into the Hydro Hall of Fame in 2002.
Henry Harbison Sinclair incorporated the Redlands Electric Light and Power Co. in 1891. Learning that hydroelectric was the cheapest kind of power, investors found a suitable water source in Mill Creek before it merges with the Santa Ana River. However, that was 7.5 miles away from the factory.
At the time, most utilities used direct current electricity, which meant their customers had to be within 5 miles of the plant. Single-phase alternating current had been introduced, but it was so new that using it to operate motors was difficult.
“Not to be discouraged, the power company summoned an electrical engineer named Almarian W. Decker to solve these challenges,” Heinrich writes. “He suggested using three-phase alternating current to push electricity from Mill Creek to Redlands and to provide the capability to run large motors.”
Poly-phase systems that created a rotating magnetic field being developed by Tesla and others were then considered experimental. Decker’s design was considered so revolutionary Westinghouse declined to build it. So the Redlands power company approached the newly formed General Electric Co., which built two generators to Decker’s specifications. The two 250-kilowatt generators remained in use until 1934.
Mill Creek No. 1 began operating on Sept. 7, 1893, a month after Decker died. Mill Creek Nos. 2 and 3 were added later in the same building off Bryant Street.
Decker also designed the 120-kilowatt Pomona plant in the San Bernardino Mountains, which began to operate in 1892. It delivered electricity 14 miles to Pomona and 29 miles to San Bernardino. In 1902, the Redlands power company merged with Edison Electric Co., which became Southern California Edison.
The 3-megawatt Santa Ana River No. 1 plant went online on Jan. 9, 1889 and was entered into the Hydro Hall in 1999.
It used alternating current on a grander scale than Mill Creek No. 1 with the nation’s longest-distance, high-voltage transmission line carrying alternating current, according to an article by Thomas T. Taylor, a senior archaeologist with Edison. The line ran 83 miles to an Edison Electric substation on Second Street in Los Angeles.
It also was the largest high-head hydroelectric plant.
“Buoyed by the success of the Mill Creek venture, the Redlands investors formed the Southern California Power Co. in 1896 to develop hydroelectricity on the Santa Ana River,” Taylor writes.
Water is diverted from Bear Creek and the Santa Ana River, well upstream from the powerhouse at the confluence of the Santa Ana River and Keller Creek. It is conveyed through flumes and tunnels to the forebay, where it drops 735 feet through a pressurized pipe.
The plant remained largely unchanged until it was upgraded in the 1940s from 50 hertz, or cycles per second, to 60 hertz to a meet a new industry standard.
It was Edison’s premier hydro facility until 1907, when the 20-megawatt Kern River No. 1 was built using the same three-phase alternating current technology used at Mill Creek No. 1 and Santa Ana River No. 1.
Santa Ana River No. 2 was removed during construction of the Seven Oaks Dam.
Since Musk honored Tesla, his popularity has soared.
The website nikolateslafans.com calls Tesla “possibly the most universally loved Serbian in the history of Serbians.”
The site leads with a story with a headline, “Why Nikola Tesla was a better inventor than Edison.”
Tesla moved to the United States in 1884 and soon went to work for Thomas Alva Edison. Reportedly, Edison offered Tesla $50,000 to improve his direct current system. After Telsa presented an improved design, Edison said he was joking about the bonus, the website says. Tesla quit.
Tesla then founded the Tesla Electric Light Co. and patented his arc lighting system using alternative current. Investors skeptical of alternative current withdrew their funding, leaving Tesla broke, the website says. He sold his patents for stock.
Besides his innovations with alternating current, Tesla is credited with inventing fluorescent tubes — predecessors of neon lights. Tesla formulated the principles of radar (Radio Detection And Ranging) in 1917, although the first radar unit wasn’t built until 1934.
Although Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi is often credited with inventing the radio, Tesla created the process around 1900, the website says. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected Marconi’s patent on the radio after it was proven that it was initially invented by Tesla.
Tesla died bankrupt and penniless.