by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Recent blackouts in California, the likes of which have not been seen in nearly twenty years and coming during record heat, have taken place as the state government announced ambitious plans to eliminate fossil fuels as a power source within the next few decades. Debates are intensifying about whether this is achievable as questions mount concerning the effects of climate change, the likelihood of generating enough renewable energy sources to replace oil, coal and natural gas, and how an insufficient statewide power grid can be upgraded to handle anticipated need in coming years.
A century ago, the situation was very different as massive projects were undertaken to supply electricity to the region amid a long campaign to provide power through hydroelectric generation. In the City of Los Angeles, the Department of Public Service’s Bureau of Power and Light issued, on this date in 1920, a pamphlet of “Commercial and Industrial Electric Power Rates Effective in Los Angeles City Including the Harbor District” to emphasize the importance placed on providing enough sources of energy for large-scale industrial and commercial growth.
It is worth observing that it was not quite four decades prior that electricity came to the city and the rapid transformation of the energy source in the Angel City, much less the rest of the United States, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries reflected just how dramatically American life was altered during those years. The nation became a preeminent industrial power and the ability to provide reliable and affordable electricity was obviously essential to that growth.
For Los Angeles, which, within a few years of the introduction of electricity, entered its first significant period of development during the Boom of the 1880s, occurring mainly during te mayoral administration of William H. Workman, nephew of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman, industrial development was not a major part of that early phase.
By the 1910s, however, the situation was very different. The explosion in the oil industry, which began in the early 1890s, and the building of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, the bonds of which were produced when Workman was city treasurer between 1901 and 1907, were key factors in allowing for the establishment of a larger industrial base in the local economy. So, too, was the acceleration of hydroelectic power generation, locally and in the Sierra Nevada Mountains quite a bit north of the city, where substantial water supplies flowing from the Aqueduct and out of that mountain range allowed for the construction of hydroelectric power plants.
As the original industrial corridor along the west bank of the Los Angeles River expanded and then hit its limits, new areas for industry were established to the southeast, within the city, as well as in the City of Vernon and what became the City of Commerce and south in the South Los Angeles and Harbor districts, the latter of which, at Wilmington and San Pedro, was annexed via the “shoestring” addition in 1909. One major example of industrial growth at the latter took place during World War I when shipbuilding for the war effort became a major force. Another earlier example in downtown and highlighted in a prior post on this blog was when the meat packing plant of Michael Cudahy was built.
One panel of the pamphlet made note of the increasing importance of Los Angeles, the largest city on the west coast, as “a most important location on the ‘trade map’ of the Pacific and the Orient.” It touted the “municipally-owned harbor, warehouses and docks a well as “cheap MUNICIPAL ELECTRIC POWER in LARGE QUANTITIES” which meant that the city was “a prospective location for new and important industries” and was “worthy of close study by large manufacturing and commercial enterprises.”
Beyond the “Pacific Rim” component was that “equally important advantages are also obtained for the fabrication of products for the inland market in States west of the Mississippi River,” which would only grow as the population of the western United States increased. Finally, there was the vital element of the Panama Canal, which was opened just six years before and which “adds possibilities to the Atlantic seaboard and Europe,” already the case for such existing local products as oil and agricultural produce, such as the orange.
Under the heading of “Encourage Industries” is a statement that the City of Angels “is in a position to extend substantial encouragement to the establishment of every important line of industry” and examples given included shipbuilding, the Pacific Cotton Mills Company, and the plant of the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. These latter two, comprising the first large-scale venture in the city, were announced in June 1919 for 550 acres at Central and Slauson avenues, where Ascot Park was situated. The Goodyear plant, in particular, was hailed as “being the most important new industrial undertaking west of the Mississippi River” and both were to employ some 7,500 workers and involve some $25 million in investment.
To provide the power for such enterprises as these and those expected to follow, the pamphlet note that “attention is called to the fact that the City of Los Angeles has a great system of hydro-electric generating plants, power transmission lines and sub-stations.” A duplicated transmission line generating 33,000 volts “encircle[s] the city, extending to the Harbor, where power is furnished to practically all of the shipbuilding, canning and other important industries in that locality.” This system also fed “all other important industrial districts in the city” with these “well supplied with industrial sites, terminal, railroad and harbor facilities.”
Because of the size and capacity of the system, ‘the INDUSTRIAL POWER RATE offered by the City is the lowest in effect in California” and this allowed Los Angeles to be in a dominant position on the west coast.” The rate schedule was set “with the expressed policy and purpose of Los Angeles to devote its large hydro-electric resources to the building up of great Metropolitan Industrial Center.”
Three interior panels provided rates for “domestic and commercial,” “commercial power,” and “industrial power” segments of clientele for the Bureau. For the first, rates stated at 5.6 cents per kilowatt hour up to the first 100 hours and scaled down to 2 cents for use in excess of 3000 hours. For the commercial sector, it was 4.5 cents down to 1.2 cents for the same range of hours with a minimum of 50 cents per month per horsepower of capacity with no less than $1.50 per ,month used. Further, the commercial schedule applied to entities using less than 6,000 kilowatt hours monthly, at which point, the industrial schedule applied, with rates from $1.77 at that level down to 86 cents for 1.5 million hours or more. For this area, there were conditions concerning discounts for load factors measurable by tests and meter readings. There was also a 20% discount for companies using a certain amount of power during peak hours of 4:30-9:30 p.m.
The front panel includes a photograph of the San Francisquito Power Plant Number 1, which became the city’s first powerhouse when the first unit opened in March 1917, with two more following the next month, in San Francisquito Canyon north of Los Angeles using water from the Aqueduct. When fully operational, the plant, one of fourteen eventually constructed along the route, provided some 70% of all the electricity in city limits, though today the facility only generates a half of one percent.
Elsewhere in the pamphlet it was noted from a report by a special committee including William Mulholland, the principal engineer for the Aqueduct project, that the facility’s design with the hydraulic element, transmission line and substation “shows, throughout, evidence of the most careful and thoroughgoing studies regarding the features best adapted o secure permanency of construction with economy and reliability of operation in the highest attainable degree.” This included the accounting for changes in the load based on demand and usage as well as variable weather. At the bottom of each panel were the statements of “Permanency and Reliability,” “Permanency of Construction,” and “Reliability of Operation” to assure customers of the solidity of the system.
As the 1920s dawned, with the Aqueduct opened seven years prior, the San Francisquito plant placed on line three years before, and with another major boom period underway, the Los Angeles Bureau of Power and Light was well-placed to meet demand as growth skyrocketed. Subsequent decades of development meant, of course, that the provision of electricity had to be enlarged and upgraded accordingly, though conditions now, a century after this pamphlet was produced, are providing challenges radically unlike what occurred then.
With lightning-fast responses part of how we live now, we expect to have cheap and reliable supplies of water come out of our faucets, gas in our water heaters and ranges and stoves, and electricity when we flip the switch, turn on the television and fire up our computers (including when writing blog posts.) When demand increases, costs rise and supplies are strained, sometimes leading to blackouts as we experienced last month, we notice how crucial these provisions of fuel and power are and how fragile the systems can be.
The Bureau of Power and Light, organized in 1911 when the Department of Service was established by an amendment to the city charter, merged with the Bureau of Water Works and Supply just over a quarter-century later, in 1937, to become the Department of Water and Power (DWP). How the DWP, along with other large scale providers of utilities like Southern California Edison, SoCal Gas, and the Metropolitan Water District, adapts and adjusts to changing conditions of electrical and water delivery issues in coming years will certainly be fascinating to see.