Hall of Fame: Horseshoe Plant Serves the Public for 100 Years

For the province of Alberta, Canada, the 14-MW Horseshoe hydro plant was the first step in a series of hydro developments designed to provide reliable, clean electricity to power industry and commerce. This project is the most recent inductee into the Hydro Hall of Fame.

By TransAlta Corp.

Since 1911, TransAlta Corp. has supplied the electric power that has made progress and innovation possible in the Canadian province of Alberta – and beyond. At first, the company’s growth was tied to the evolution of a province steeped in prairie optimism and rich natural resources. More recently, the company – now Canada’s largest publicly-traded generator and marketer of electricity and renewable power – has powered industry, commerce and community well-being across Canada and in the U.S. and Australia.

TransAlta’s oldest hydroelectric plant, the 14-MW Horseshoe plant on the Bow River in southern Alberta, jump-started the company’s efforts to meet the growing appetite for electrical power. Horseshoe, one of this year’s Hydro Hall of Fame inductees, has been a reliable source of electricity for customers in Alberta since May 1911.

Hydroelectricity in Alberta

The first hydroelectric development in Alberta, the Peter Prince plant, actually dates to 1896, but the simple facility in what is now downtown Calgary was not reliable. The water for the system froze in winter, and spring floods threatened to wash the plant away. Its seven primitive waterwheels were so unreliable due to unpredictable water flow in the Bow River that the company had to install steam boilers to keep the generators going.

By the early 1900s, power was badly needed in southern Alberta. Calgary, the largest city in the region, was in the middle of a massive real-estate boom, but its future was limited by a lack of energy – electricity, natural gas and petroleum.

By chance, Max Aitken, the wizard of Canadian finance, was visiting western Canada in the early 1900s. Travelling between Calgary and Vancouver on the Canadian Pacific Railway, the man who was later bestowed the title of Lord Beaverbrook spied potential hydro sites along the Bow River. “As I was passing through the Kananaskis District, I saw what looked like a very fine power proposition within a hundred yards of the track, and I think on the north side,” he wrote to his nephew Traven Aitken, who lived in Calgary, in April 1909. “I would think it worth your while to cover that district, with a view to ascertaining if there are any other likely power locations.”

Construction of the 14-MW Horseshoe hydro facility took place from 1909 to 1911
Construction of the 14-MW Horseshoe hydro facility took place from 1909 to 1911. The equipment used to build this historic facility on the Bow River in the Canadian province of Alberta consisted of picks, shovels and wheelbarrows.

Max Aitken was one of the most colorful, determined and controversial figures in the history of Canadian finance and business. From humble beginnings in New Brunswick, he achieved his first successes in Halifax, before striking it rich in Montreal, the financial capital of Edwardian Canada. He was both a visionary risk-taker and a shrewd judge of business opportunities. He was also a ruthless consolidator and created two near-monopolies, Canada Cement and the Steel Company of Canada.

His entrepreneurial endeavours in the Alberta electricity business stirred up far less controversy. Given the nature of the business and the fragmented market in numerous small prairie communities, a power monopoly was not possible nor worth the effort. Max had already invested in electrical generation plants in Quebec and put together a series of successful power, lighting and street railway utilities in the Caribbean.

From the start, Aitken had a simple but effective business plan: control all the best Bow River hydro sites and, with this cost-effective supply source, dominate Calgary’s power supply. This would provide leverage on the future economy of the region, as well as cheap power for the Canada Cement plants he owned at Exshaw and Calgary. In turn, he could access his Montreal assets for the financing and the technology to build the power generation facilities. It was a neatly integrated model involving people, capital, technology and markets.

Developing Horseshoe

The first site developed on the Bow River was at Horseshoe Falls, and the plant takes its name from that feature in the canyon. Development of this site involved building the Horseshoe Dam, installing a hydroelectric plant, and delivering electricity to customers. At the time, the company was called Calgary Power.

Although the equipment used to build the facility was standard issue, the construction project was anything but run-of-the-mill. About 200 men worked on Horseshoe from 1909 to 1911, using the tools of the day: picks, shovels and wheelbarrows. A washout threatened the project during the spring flood of 1910, and smallpox broke out in the workforce in early 1911. Transportation of materials – including 1,600 cars of rock, gravel and cement – took place along nearby Canadian Pacific Railway lines.

Horseshoe has a head of 72 feet, behind a reinforced concrete dam with sluiceways, spillway, four headgates and three steel penstocks. Three horizontal Francis turbines, installed in 1911, generated 4,476 kW of power each. Another horizontal unit, installed in 1914, matched the others in capacity. Newport News of Virginia provided Units 1 and 4, with the other two coming from Karlstads Mekaniska Weskstad of Kristinehamn, Sweden. According to a company report on hydro operations written in 1978, the turbines “each containing opposing twin runners discharging into a single draft tube – a design already approaching obsolescence.”

In 1951, local control of the 14-MW Horseshoe facility was replaced with a state-of-the-art hydro control center that also controlled five other hydro facilities. With the automated system, staff required was reduced from 47 to 19.

Canadian General Electric installed the generators in 1911, including one 4,500-kVA, 12,000-volt unit and two 2,500-kVA, 12,000-volt units. In 1914, the company added an additional 4,500-kVA unit. Walker-Fyshe Company Ltd. of Montreal was the contractor for the project, and Smith, Kerry & Chace, Engineers of Toronto designed the facility.

When it began operating on May 21, 1911, the Horseshoe plant had the largest capacity in Alberta. The city of Calgary, the village of Cochrane and the cement plant at Exshaw were the first customers of electricity from Horseshoe.

According to reports at the time, the Horseshoe hydro project cost $1.5 million – or about $30 million in 2011 currency – a bargain.

Horseshoe’s importance to the province

“What steam power was to the nineteenth century, hydro-electric power is to the twentieth,” crowed an article in the Calgary Herald in May 1911. “No city of today can hope to hold its own in the race for industrial supremacy without hydroelectric energy.”

At the time, the plant employed 12 to 15 men, according to the Herald, and even then the company was scouting out ways to add more capacity upriver at Lake Minnewanka.

Horseshoe was the first of four hydro plants Calgary Power built along the mainstem of the Bow River, and additional plants were built later on the Kananaskis, Spray and Cascade river tributaries. These rivers were not, however, a reliable source of water in winter months, so in addition to adding capacity to Lake Minnewanka with a dam in 1912, Calgary Power built a dam and another hydroelectric facility on the Bow River just upstream of Horseshoe, at the mouth of the Kananaskis River. Named Kananaskis, the plant came on-line in 1913, with two vertical Francis units providing a total capacity of 9 MW.

Throughout the boom of the 1920s, the Horseshoe and Kananaskis plants served the electrical needs of southern Alberta consumers. Demand for more power encouraged Calgary Power to build the Ghost Dam and 28-MW hydro plant on the Bow River in the late 1920s. It began generating electricity just as the Depression of the 1930s crippled the economy. The additional generation allowed the company to justify construction of a high-voltage 132-kV transmission line to the Edmonton area, expanding its reach to the provincial capital.

By 1959, Calgary Power had developed 11 hydro plants in the Bow River watershed.

Operation of the plant

“In a further attempt to maximize the output from its first two hydroelectric plants,” a 1978 report on hydro plants notes, “the Company tested their six turbine-generator units during the mid 1920s. The salt water velocity method was used to measure discharges of the four units at the Horseshoe plant, and the flowmeter measurements in the canal to measure those in the two units at Kananaskis. Forebay to switchboard efficiency curves from no-load to full-load for all units were then computed, and used to determine daily operating schedules for both hydro and thermal units during the winter months.”

This innovation placed the company out in front of Canadian hydro operators at the time and, the report says, “It is interesting to note that the same system of efficient operation of hydro units was developed independently in the United States at about the same time by S. Logan Kerr and I.P. Morris Company.”

In September 1940, a bushing in a 72,000-volt transformer failed at the Horseshoe facility and started the transformer on fire. Plant personnel and the Calgary Fire Department responded to the emergency. Both the Horseshoe and Kananaskis plants were out of service until a temporary transformer and switch station were hastily installed. Retiree Malcolm Clarke recalls that every single employee in the village of Seebe, near the plant, was dragged out of bed to help fight the fire, and all worked long hours to repair the damage after the blaze was extinguished.

In 1947, Calgary Power installed the first automation system at its 13-MW Barrier plant on the Kananaskis River. In 1951, it opened a hydro control centre at Seebe, Alberta, to control the Horseshoe, 18-MW Cascade, 50-MW Spray, 3-MW Three Sisters, 18-MW Rundle, and Barrier plants. To staff them all manually would have required 47 workers, but with the automated system it was possible to run the centrally-controlled unit with 19 staff members. This command center continued operating until 1985, when the company created the System Control Centre at the head office building in downtown Calgary.

 14-MW Horseshoe facility
The 14-MW Horseshoe facility continues operating today at full capacity, thanks in part to major overhauls on all four units completed over the past two years.

Roger Drury, a TransAlta project manager for Hydro Major Projects, recalls some of the developments at the Horseshoe plant over the years. At one time, all dispatch instructions were sent by telegraph – just like the cables that were used to send messages along the railway tracks. There were two men on each shift, an operator and a floorman. The operator ran the machinery and the floorman did maintenance. Men in the role of floorman, who were often called “oilers,” made rounds of the plant, 24 hours a day, greasing and oiling the equipment to keep it operating efficiently. These systems have all been automated and the oil levels are now monitored weekly.

Mark Gallon, electrical foreman in charge of the Horseshoe plant, has been working around the facility for the past 30 years. He says the machinery is all original, except for the turbine runners and generator windings, and although the equipment is old, it keeps running.

Seasonal issues remain. Frazil ice can be a problem in 2011, much as it was in 1911. Frazil ice forms when water is supercooled. A cold day with wind can result in the rapid cooling of the surface of the water as it loses heat to the much colder air above. The strong ice, says Gallon, can span a 2-foot opening, clog the racks and make for real headaches. The only way to deal with frazil ice is to get out the pike poles and manually break up the obstructions.

Hydro has been an important part of TransAlta’s fleet since 1911. Over the years, TransAlta has developed other fuel sources, including coal, natural gas, wind and geothermal, and now has power plants in Canada, the U.S. and Australia. Today, hydropower remains an important part of the company’s balanced fuel mix.

Plans for the future

“The plant remains in full production, and all four units are capable of generating at full capacity,” notes Don Terway, manager of Hydro Major Projects for TransAlta. “Horseshoe has a very high capacity factor due to its run-of-river arrangement and remains very profitable. During spring runoff, all four units will be in full production and we will also be spilling through the Obermeyer automatic spill gates/devices.”

“We’ve performed major overhauls on all four units over the past two years. It’s fascinating doing work on site because the only method of removing and reinstalling components in or out of the plant is to use a railway cart that rides on a 45-degree slope and is operated with a truck-mounted hoist from the top. It’s a very interesting operation, and it’s been this way for decades,” he says.

In 1981, Calgary Power changed its name to TransAlta. The company’s hydro facilities sprang from a demand for electricity during the boom of the early 1900s. Over the years, the company’s leaders and dedicated employees worked hard to create and maintain a reliable and efficient system of generating electricity for the province. That commitment to providing power to the people of Alberta began 100 years ago at this first hydro site, which continues to run due to solid operating practices, routine maintenance, engineering and major overhauls performed over the course of its life. The Horseshoe plant marked the beginning of TransAlta’s 100 years and will continue to operate for years to come.

The village that Horseshoe built

A company town sprang up in 1909 near the Horseshoe plant, at the confluence of the Bow and Kananaskis rivers. Its name was Seebe, taken from the Cree word “si-pi,” meaning creek, river or meeting of the waters.

Seebe grew to include 22 houses, a 17-unit apartment complex, a baseball diamond and the world’s smallest curling rink. The Henderson’s Directory for southern Alberta in 1914 lists Seebe as a community with 350 residents and mail delivery four times a day. In 1918, a general store opened and the community had enough children to support a one-room school. In the remote hamlet, the school building not only served as a teaching institution for grades 1 through 6 but also as the community center. Weddings, parties, performances and other events took place at the school and community hall next door.

By 1924, the population was down to 40 people and Seebe was just a whistle-stop along the Canadian Pacific Railway main line. By 1929, the population of 60 included a schoolteacher, pastor, civil engineer, carpenter, merchant, storekeeper and postmaster. That year, Calgary Power sent electricity from the Horseshoe and Kananaskis dams near Seebe to southern Alberta customers over three high-tension 55,000-volt lines. This power also went to the Canada Cement Company plant at Exshaw. As of 1929, Calgary Power was supplying 98 communities in Alberta with electricity traversing more than 1,000 miles of transmission lines.

Hydro Specialist Ed Betts worked at the Horseshoe plant and lived in Seebe, starting in 1969. At first he lived in a staff house with 15 other men, but when he got married he found it “a great place to raise a family.”

In 1985, after TransAlta’s new hydro System Control Centre opened in Calgary, staff were no longer required to be housed near the plants. By the 1990s, the town had significantly diminished in population. The Seebe School closed in 1996. Eventually, on Tuesday, August 31, 2004, the Seebe town site was closed and the remaining residents either moved away or relocated their houses.

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