Juneau’s History of Groundbreaking Technology

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  • Would it surprise you to learn that Juneau was on the leading edge of hydroelectric power?

    Last week, we talked about advances in home heating technologies over the last few millennia—and there have been some pretty remarkable changes since our caveman days—but what may be even more remarkable is the fact that Juneau has been operating with clean hydroelectric power for over a century, breaking ground in hydroelectric power since the beginning.

    Our power company has roots almost as old as General Electric – the oldest in the business.  Let’s take a look back…

    Gold was found near what is now Juneau in 1880 by Joe Juneau and Richard Harris – and by 1882 the Treadwell Group was already developing the Treadwell Ditch Project to provide power.  The Treadwell Ditch was a canal that ran along the hillside collecting water at various streams.  That water would then be used to power various water wheels and the 240 stamp mill using clean hydro-mechanical energy.  In 1898, the company took it a step farther and the Treadwell Ditch and 240 mill power plant were converted to hydroelectric energy by coupling the water wheel to an electric generator.

    Over a hundred years ago and the Juneau area was already powered by the hydroelectric power that keeps us running today.

    But that wasn’t even the first use of hydro-electric power in Juneau.  Five years earlier, in 1893, Willis Thorpe, a local butcher, built a water wheel and generator on the banks of Gold Greek and named his new company Alaska Electric Light and Power (AEL&P).  Sound familiar?  Next time you’re looking at your power bill, take a moment to consider that this company has roots in the gold rush from over 120 years ago.

    In 1896 Thorpe sold his company to a group affiliated with Treadwell mines, linking AEL&P with the hydro power surrounding the gold mines at the Treadwell Ditch.  Seeing how electricity was put to use in the mines and the ways it could make people’s lives easier, the Treadwell Companies continued to look for ways to reduce their dependence on oil-fired, steam-generated electricity with more hydro plants.

    At the time The Searchlight reported that “the new Company will increase the capacity to 2,500 lights and extend service to Douglas.”

    Today AEL&P’s largest hydro plant produces an average annual energy output of 295 million kilowatt hours.  The Juneau area has five hydroelectric plants – including two which were built in 1913-1916, engineering marvels of their day that still produce low cost, reliable energy today.

    Cutting edge power and energy-saving heating solutions are nothing new in Juneau.  We’ve been on the forefront since the beginning.