Kananaskis Celebrates 100-Year Power Generation Legacy

In recognition of its 100 years of continuous operation that have resulted in a reliable supply of clean electricity for the province of Alberta, Canada, TransAlta Corp.’s 19-MW Kananaskis facility has been added to the 2013 Hydro Hall of Fame.

By TransAlta Corp.

Fresh from the successful development of its 14-MW Horseshoe hydro plant on the Bow River in Alberta, Canada, in 1911, Calgary Power (now known as TransAlta Corporation) began operation of its 9-MW Kananaskis plant in 1913. The Kananaskis facility, also on the Bow River, was inducted into Hydro Review‘s Hydro Hall of Fame in 2013 after 100 years of continuous operation.

Calgary Power was founded in 1909 to serve Alberta with electric power and has since widely expanded across Canada and into the U.S. and Australia. TransAlta is now Canada’s largest publicly-traded power generator and marketer of electricity, with renewable energy generation in the sectors of hydro, wind and geothermal.

The Kananaskis plant was built in 1913 in response to the growing demand for energy in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Now a century old, the Kananaskis facility continues to generate reliable and clean energy for consumers in Alberta.

President of Calgary Power, Richard Bedford Bennett.
President of Calgary Power, Richard Bedford Bennett.

Alberta’s hydro history

In the early 1900s, the largest city in Southern Alberta, Calgary, was experiencing a massive real-estate boom, which created a high demand for electricity. Calgary Power’s oldest hydro facility, Horseshoe, was developed in 1911 to help with southern Alberta’s energy demand, but the 14-MW plant’s winter flow rates could never allow the generation of enough power to fulfill the city’s growing energy needs. With this demand, Calgary Power saw an opportunity to build a second hydro facility upstream from Horseshoe on the Bow River.

During Calgary Power’s efforts to secure rights to develop its second hydro facility, an unexpected dispute was encountered – opposition by Dr. Andrew Macphail. As a professor of the history of medicine at McGill University and a practitioner at the Montreal Hospital for the Insane, Dr. Macphail was an unlikely opponent of hydropower expansion as he wasn’t an expert on hydro and was known for writing articles that attacked the business practices of men such as Max Aitken, Calgary Power’s first president. Richard Bedford Bennett, a politician and lawyer who was president of Calgary Power from 1911 to 1921, was able to use connections he had in Ottawa, Ontario, to the company’s advantage. “I have succeeded in getting the Department of the Interior to give us Kananaskis Falls,” wrote Bennett in early 1912, “and will have the lease issued in due course.” It made sense for one company to run two hydro facilities so close together.

Horses served as the main equipment mover during construction of the Kananaskis hydropower facility, which was built by 400 men.
Horses served as the main equipment mover during construction of the Kananaskis hydropower facility, which was built by 400 men.

In 1913, Calgary Power began building the Kananaskis hydro facility immediately below the confluence of the Kananaskis and Bow rivers, just two miles upstream from its existing Horseshoe facility. The name Kananaskis originated with Captain John Palliser, a geographer and explorer, and was based on a Cree tale about the warrior Kin-e-ah-kis, who survived a blow from an axe that should have killed him.

The facility was built as a run-of-river plant with a small dam built near the top of Kananaskis Falls to create a headpond for the intakes. The penstock tunnels were then built to convey water to the powerhouse, which is located at the toe of the falls. The turbines installed in the Kananaskis plant were two vertical Francis units that allowed for a combined capacity of 9 MW. The units were manufactured for another power company who ultimately did not complete construction of its hydro facility so Calgary Power was able to purchase these units from the other company for a bargain price. Because the Francis units were built for another facility, they never have properly fit in the Kananaskis plant because the shaft connecting the generator and turbine was not long enough so the units are perched above the downstream river level, but have still served their purpose well.

Careful planning and time management were needed to avoid the spring runoff when constructing the hydro facility. Using manual labor, the facility was built by 400 men using horses to assist with the construction.

During construction, George Johnston, a worker from England, fell off a partially poured concrete section of the dam and passed away. He was buried in the nearby town of Seebe because the company could not locate any of his relatives from England. Johnston’s marked grave can still be seen near the TransAlta workshops located by the Kananaskis plant.

The original control center of the Kananaskis power plant, located in Calgary, is shown above. It was built in 1951 and served as one of the first successful remotely-operated hydropower control centers in Canada.
The control center shown above was used in the 1980s, when the plant was monitored and controlled from TransAlta’s Calgary System Control Center.

During construction of the Horseshoe and Kananaskis plants, a town developed near the two sites for workers and their families. It was given the name Seebe from the Cree word “si-pi,” meaning creek, river or meeting of waters, because the town was located near the confluence of the Bow and Kananaskis rivers.

The town grew to have a total of 22 houses and a 17-unit apartment complex, with a baseball diamond and the world’s smallest curling rink. According to the Henderson’s Directory for southern Alberta, Seebe had 350 residents in 1914. The town’s general store opened in 1918, and the town had enough children for a one-room school. The town’s school building taught students from grades one through six and also acted as the community center for events such as weddings, parties and performances.

With the beauty of the Seebe area, many films have been shot at the location. Some films include The River of No Return starring Marilyn Monroe and Robert Mitchum, Children of Dust starring Sidney Poitier and Farrah Fawcett, and Open Range starring Kevin Costner and Robert Duval.

Dispute during development

During development and construction of the Kananaskis facility, other complications were experienced at the site. First, 160.5 acres of land that were needed for the Kananaskis project were on the reserve owned by the Stoney First Nation. Second, development and operation of the project would interfere with the Stoney First Nation’s aboriginal fishing rights, which called into question the need for compensation from the federal government for land claims. Due to this, an official with Ottawa’s Indian Department helped to guide negotiations between Calgary Power and Stoney First Nation.

Through the negotiations, Calgary Power became more sensitive to aboriginal rights and aspirations. This became a critical consideration for future company project developments.

Operation of the plant

Both Calgary Power’s Horseshoe and Kananaskis facilities provided southern Albertans with electricity throughout the boom of the 1920s. Calgary Power further expanded its hydro operations to meet the increasing electrical demand in the late 1920s with the construction of its 28-MW Ghost hydro facility, which was downstream of the Kananaskis and Horseshoe hydro plants.

In 1929, electricity from the three facilities was sent to southern Alberta customers over three high-tension 55,000-volt lines. The power was also sent to the nearby Exshaw cement plant. During this time, Calgary Power was supplying electricity to 98 communities in Alberta, including Morley, Cochrane, Okotoks and High River, with more than 1,600 km of transmission lines.

During the depression in the 1930s, Calgary Power was over-producing energy due to the crippling economy. To expand its operations, the company constructed a high-voltage 132-kV line to Alberta’s capital, Edmonton; further expanding the company’s operations. Also during this time, the Eau Claire Lumber Co. began floating its logs (cut in the Kananaskis Valley) through both the Horseshoe and Kananaskis dams downstream to the company’s sawmill. This sawmill location is now known as Eau Claire Market in Calgary.

In 1951, a control center built by the company’s local staff was opened in the Kananaskis plant. With this control center, Calgary Power was the first in Canada and one of the first in North America to be able to control all of its assets, including the Kananaskis facility remotely.

The Kananaskis plant was expanded to include a third unit for an additional 10 MW of capacity in 1952 because of the amount of water available for more generation. The new turbine-generator unit was a 12,000-horsepower Dominion turbine and generator manufactured by Canadian Westinghouse Company Ltd., with a fixed propeller designed to operate at 70 feet of head. This new addition to the plant helped Calgary Power to continue providing reliable energy to Albertans.

By 1959, Calgary Power had developed 11 hydro plants in the Bow River basin, with the last expansions completed in the Spray system. This system includes three plants – 50 MW Rundle, 103 MW Spray and 3 MW Three Sisters – that generate electricity off of the Spray Lakes storage reservoir created by the Canyon and Three Sisters dams.

In 1981 Calgary Power changed its name to TransAlta to better reflect the company’s expanding operations throughout Alberta. A. W. Howard, the company board chairman at the time, explained, “The change reflects the company’s province-wide role in the utility sector and its expanding interest in non-utility operations.” In addition, the company had plans to invest elsewhere in the province and outside of Alberta.

Between the 1950s and 1990s, a large number of automation improvements in operating and maintenance technology occurred within the company, which led to a reduction in the number of staff required to operate the hydro facilities. The control center originally located at Kananaskis was moved to Calgary in 1985 so that the company could also monitor its transmission, distribution and thermal control centers. TransAlta eventually divested its transmission and distribution assets to AltaLink L.P. in the late 1990s and early 2000s due to deregulation in Alberta. As a result, the control center once again was used only to monitor the company’s hydro plants. Today, all of TransAlta’s hydro operations are monitored and operated 24/7 from the hydro control center at its head office.

With operations of the hydro control center in Calgary, not as many employees were needed on site in Kananaskis. the 1990s, the population of the nearby town of Seebe significantly diminished, as there was a change in the social outlook of the population. More people began wanting to own their homes rather than renting a house in the town and wanted to move to larger communities where they had access to more facilities and activities. The Seebe schoolhouse closed in 1996 and was the last of about 5,000 one-room schools in Alberta. The town site that grew with the development and construction of the Horseshoe and Kananaskis hydro facilities officially closed on Aug. 31, 2004.

The Kananaskis hydropower plant is still providing power to southern Alberta. It generates approximately 93,500 MWh annually.
The Kananaskis hydropower plant is still providing power to southern Alberta. It generates approximately 93,500 MWh annually.

Each year with spring runoff, flows in the Bow River temporarily exceed the capacity of the units at Kananaskis, requiring the spillway to be used. The primary spillway consists of 11 openings controlled by stoplogs, which are removed and replaced with the aid of a mechanical log lifter.

In addition to the spillways that were controlled by the log lifters, spillgates were installed in the dam in the mid-1980s that had the capability to be remotely controlled. However, because they were very small (three gates, each 8 ft x 6 ft) and the remote system was not very reliable, they are maintained and controlled from the nearby plant site and only remotely controlled during the run-off season.In 2005, the Atlas Polar lifter installed in the early 1980s was replaced with an even more automated log lifter from the same company that could be operated by two workers. The original 1913 log lifter is still maintained and can be used in case of emergencies or when the 2005 Atlas Polar lifter is down for repairs.

Hydro operations today

TransAlta currently owns and operates 28 hydro facilities in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Washington State, with a total capacity of 946 MW. The TransAlta hydro developments in the Bow River basin have a total capacity of 329 MW. In addition, TransAlta has a fuel mix of coal, gas, geothermal and wind across Canada and in the U.S. and Australia. TransAlta is now one of Canada’s largest publicly-traded power companies.

Today, the Kananaskis dam site is also a popular location for geologists and university personnel to examine the rocks below the spillways. It is one of the only sites where certain million-year-old formations have been exposed and can be studied to determine the history of the earth, further adding to the Kananaskis site’s history.

The Kananaskis plant is still providing power to southern Alberta and will continue to for many years to come. On average, the plant generates 93,500 MWh each year. All of TransAlta’s hydroelectric plants primarily provide electricity during periods of peak electrical demand and ensure system stability. Their operating flexibility means they can start quickly to introduce hydropower within minutes, balancing out shortages due to unexpected outages or providing power during times of high demand.

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