Pioneering Hydroelectric Station Is Newest IEEE Milestone

Learn about the history of this important development

8 July 2008

More than 100 years ago, one of the first hydroelectric plants to be built in below-freezing temperatures began supplying power to Winnipeg, Man., Canada. To honor this engineering breakthrough, IEEE named the plant—the Pinawa Hydroelectric Station—an IEEE Milestone in Electrical Engineering and Computing. On 9 June, 102 years to the day that the plant became operational, members of the IEEE Winnipeg Section gathered at the city’s Manitoba Hydro Electrical Museum to celebrate. Members of the section, along with local officials and employees of Manitoba Hydro, the local power utility, saw the unveiling of a commemorative plaque that will be hung permanently at the Pinawa Dam Provincial Heritage Park, the site of what remains of the decommissioned power plant.

TOUGH ROAD It took a lot of hard work to build and then maintain the Pinawa plant. Tons of heavy construction equipment and the components that would make up the hydroelectric station had to be hauled to the banks of the Winnipeg River through terrain that was mainly peat bog, a wet, spongy, nearly impassable mush. Construction crews had to build so-called corduroy roads, made up of hundreds of logs, which provided a solid—if not always stable—surface on which horses could pull wagonloads of gear. A cart carrying a generator that went off the road and sunk into the muck was only one of a number of incidents contributing to delays.

The difficulties didn’t end when the crews reached the riverbank. Setting up the hydroelectric plant meant months of blasting through the bedrock to make the Pinawa Channel deeper and wider and to set up two smaller dams to force water from the Winnipeg River down the channel and to prevent flooding.

And after the power plant was completed, its operators had to combat the buildup of ice crystals, which clung to the dams’ underwater concrete and metal structures when winter temperatures plummeted below -6 ºC, a frequent occurrence in Winnipeg. Unchecked, the ice would limit the volume of water that passed through the turbines, which would curtail the hydroelectric plant’s power output and create a flooding threat upriver.

OUT WITH THE COAL But the effort was worth it. When the first of Pinawa’s 1000-kilowatt generators was turned on, it delivered enough power to meet Winnipeg’s electricity demand—demand that had previously been supplied by a coal-burning steam plant. As a result, the air quality improved, and the cost of electricity for Winnipeg’s residents dropped from 20 cents to just over 3 cents per kilowatt-hour. Eventually, close to 90 percent of Canada’s electricity would come from hydropower, a clean, cheap source of power, though not without environmental problems of its own.

Observers at the time questioned the wisdom of spending 4 million Canadian dollars to build a 14-megawatt plant and a 105-kilometer transmission line for delivering high-voltage ac to Winnipeg. It was a city with only 35 streetcars, a couple of dozen streetlights, and 100 000 residents, many of whom still used gaslight. But the owner of the Pinawa plant, the Winnipeg Electric Railway Co., had tremendous foresight. By the time it was retired in 1951, Pinawa’s output, which by then had been increased to 22 MW, had been dwarfed by skyrocketing demand caused by population growth and the use of electric appliances that hadn’t been widely introduced or even invented when the plant first came on line. Its replacement, the Seven Sisters Hydroelectric Plant built downstream on the Winnipeg River’s main branch, is rated at 165 MW.

Asked about the significance of the Pinawa Hydroelectric Station being named an IEEE Milestone, Haider Al-Saidi, vice chair of the Winnipeg Section, said that the honor is “a reminder that we as engineers build on the experience of earlier generations and that what we’ve done in the past is not irrelevant at this point.”

The IEEE Milestone Program highlights the role in the advancement of science and technology played by IEEE’s geographic regions and organizational units, including its technical societies. IEEE recognizes more than 75 engineering and computing milestones around the world. Innovative technical achievements that are more than 25 years old are eligible to be named milestones.

For more information on the program, administered by the IEEE History Center in New Brunswick, N.J., visit

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