Keeping the lights on: An ongoing report of local power conditions
Uploaded: Tuesday, January 23, 2001 9 a.m.

Foresight and megawatts
City founders, past leaders provided for the future

by Don Kazak

Palo Alto's relatively good standing in the current energy crisis is the result of the remarkable foresight of both the city's founders and its leadership slightly more than 40 years ago.

The city's incorporation in 1894 was organized by a group of Stanford University professors who lived in what is now known as Professorville, just south of downtown.

Two of them, Charles B. Wing and Charles D. ("Daddy") Marx, later served long terms on the City Council and also designed Stanford Stadium.

They became interested in incorporating the city over a search for a water supply for the fledgling community. Marx and Wing helped sink a cooperative water well near their homes. They also had a strong interest in the city owning its utilities, putting Palo Alto in a unique position among other California communities.

After incorporation, the city built its own power plant in 1900 to provide electricity.

From 1900 to 1923, that was the city's sole source of power.

After 1923, the city started to buy supplemental electricity from PG&E as the growing community outstripped the capacity of its power plant. In time, the power plant was closed and the city went to long-term contracts with PG&E for power.

That ended in 1960, when then-City Manager Jerry Keithley decided to end the long-term contract with PG&E. It was a bold move.

For the next four years, until 1964, the city subsisted on short-term power contracts with PG&E while it hunted for a long-term power supply.

In 1964, the city entered into a 40-year contract for electricity with the federal Western Area Power Agency (WAPA), which had built a string of hydroelectric dams called the Central Valley Project, mostly along the Sacramento River. Two of the main sources of energy were the Shasta and Trinity dams.

At the time, the WAPA contract appeared to be a foolhardy move. The then-coal-fueled power plants (now natural gas-powered) were still producing cheap electricity, and nuclear power plants were just then coming on line. The word then was that nuclear energy was going to be so cheap "you can't even meter it."

Reality proved otherwise. Hydroelectric power remains relatively cheap, compared to other power sources.

The city continued its foresight by joining with 10 other cities to form the Northern California Power Agency (NCPA) in 1968.

NCPA eventually built its own hydroelectric plant on the Calaveras River, which came on line in the mid-1980s.

Between the WAPA contract and NCPA's Calaveras project, the city has been free from any dependence on PG&E since 1964.

The WAPA contract was renewed last December, for an additional 20 years. The city had an edge in winning the renewal, since the federal government has a priority of selling energy to city-owned utilities like Palo Alto instead of shareholder-owned utilities like PG&E.

So the next time you drive by Lake Shasta, think of all that water as electricity waiting to happen, just for you.

And give a nod of thanks to Charles Wing, Daddy Marx, and Jerry Keithley.


Palo Alto Online
© 2000 Palo Alto Online.