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Week of 16 December 2019: Power & Energy: Hydroelectric

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Hydroelectric power has been a significant component in pulp and paper mills for over 120 years. Early modern paper mills quickly adopted electric power produced by streams near their facilities. It was a natural--the pulp and paper mills needed water and when the ability to generate hydroelectric power came along they quickly built dams and harnessed this renewable power.

Consolidated Paper in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin, founded by the ancestors of my good friend George Mead, always comes to mind when I think of this scenario. By the way, George showed impeccable timing as a businessperson, when, back in the 1990's he sold Consolidated to Stora Enso at the top of the market for those grades. George never fails to remind me of this when I see him. It was a great business move.

The North American pulp and paper industry can be followed historically by observing the rivers that can be harnessed. In the Northeast, both in Canada, New England, New York and Pennsylvania, mills developed along streams with enough volume and drop to produce significant energy, first directly harnessed from water wheels, then from turbines when electricity came along.

Same thing happened on the Miami River in Ohio and on the Wisconsin and Fox Rivers in Wisconsin. In the Northwest and British Columbia similar conditions existed and were exploited to supply a growing need for pulp and paper products. The Tennessee Valley Authority brought cheap hydroelectric power to the Southeast.

Combined with Dr. Herty's research at the University of Georgia and the groundbreaking silviculture developments at North Carolina State University, the pulp and paper industry migrated to the South after World War II.

Being early adopters of electrical energy, pulp and paper mills chose their own frequencies and voltages, as they were stand-alone islands in a sea of kerosene lamps. Until recent times, some old mill sites have had to have custom-wound motors to accommodate their heritage electrical systems.

Other oddities abound. If you own any KitchenAid appliances, this company was founded in Troy, Ohio by the Hobart family (along with Hobart Brothers welders and filler metals, which they founded in a separate company). The Hobart family was from the Middletown/Hamilton, Ohio area and got their start in electricity by selling illumination systems to the mills along the Miami River. They charged $1 per month per bulb for the electricity and the systems to generate it and convey it to each light bulb socket. So, you might say KitchenAid appliances can trace their heritage to the pulp and paper industry.

Today, hydroelectric power still serves as an important source of electricity. According to the International Energy Agency, as of 2015, hydroelectric power was 6.1% of the total US electrical energy supply.

In this day of renewable energy, hydroelectric power serves a new purpose when the wind doesn't blow and the sun doesn't shine. Pumped Storage Plants (PSPs) serve to store energy for future use. Water is pumped into reservoirs and then released through turbines to level out the electrical production when the foundational source is unreliable or unpredictable. The largest one of these facilities in the United States is the Bath County Pumped Storage Station in Virginia.

For safety this week, I don't need to tell you that water, electricity and heights, all necessary elements in a hydroelectric facility, each have hazards of their own. Make sure your personnel understand and are trained in the safety requirements of each.

Be safe and we will talk next week.


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