Research gone wild: Engineering power in the Pacific Northwest, part II
by Tina Hilding | © Washington State University
In 1946, the Washington State Legislature established Washington State College’s Institute of Technology. In a 1986 oral history, Eugene Greenfield, who directed the Institute’s Division of Industrial Research starting in 1958, explained that the purpose of the institute was to “find technological means for inducing a larger industrial output in the State of Washington.’’
“At the end of [World War II], industry was flopped right straight on its back,’’ said Greenfield. “There was nothing doing, and it looked as though it would be many years before industry would be picking up.’’
The legislature would provide $500,000 a year to fund a division “whose sole purpose would be to improve the industrial character of the state through engineering innovations and research.’’
As part of the legislation, the Institute of Technology was permitted to take on research contracts from various industries in the state, including forestry, aviation, glass, plastics, and the power industry. It was a unique arrangement set up specifically to help industry.
With the new funding, the university began hiring leading researchers in their fields. The research was young and exciting, remembers Dave Flaherty, who served as an editor and writer for College of Engineering and Architecture publications between 1956 and 1988. Half of the faculty members were hired solely to do research.
“They were there to help industry in the state,’’ says Flaherty, “The state legislature has never been so generous as in that year.’’
As the research became successful and produced results, the institute was bringing in significant industry contracts, and students benefitted from the opportunity to participate in research.
Greenfield himself was an expert in electrical transmission and conducted research in electrical insulation—a tricky problem as voltages increased. Greenfield also helped the Northwest aluminum industry become pioneer producers of aluminum transmission line and cables, as the need for aluminum to make military planes diminished after World War II.
“It was a time when industry needed more and more electrical power, and the cities needed more and more electrical power,’’ said Greenfield, “and we had to learn how to transmit it overhead, and also how to transmit it underground.’’
One of the best areas to view the frenzied pace of WSC engineering in the 1950s was in the Albrook Hydraulic Laboratory. Demand for electricity was growing rapidly, and power companies and private utilities were looking to dams as power generators.
Washington Water Power came to WSC researchers in 1953 with a problem. They were looking to construct a spillway for a proposed $85 million dam on the Clark Fork River in Montana. Professor Paul Ruff had experience as a dam modeler, and the WWP engineers asked him to construct a miniature flume in the hydraulics lab. At the time, the closest facility for dam modeling was in Minnesota. By December 1954, a miniature of the dam was built in an old WWII-era Quonset hut behind Dana Hall.
A few months later came another request— this time for a model of a dam on the Middle Snake River at Pleasant Valley. The researchers built a model, one-fiftieth the size of a real dam. It stood twelve feet high and 25 feet across.
With no room in the Quonset hut, the model was built outside.
Eventually, the laboratory was literally built around the dam models—as studies were being conducted. A frenzied pace continued in the lab through the 1970s as dams around the West and throughout the world were built. Among the dams modeled at Albrook were the Rocky Reach Dam, built for Chelan County Public Utility District (PUD) around 1961 at a scale of 1:75; Priest Rapids, for Grant County PUD; Wells Dam for Douglas County PUD; and Wanapum, built for Grant County PUD on a scale of 1:20. The lab also did models of Snake River dams, including Pleasant Valley, Brownlee, and Oxbow.
The dam models were not only useful to industry, but became one of Pullman’s largest tourist attractions, drawing numerous visitors. At one time, there were two models side-by-side, one for a dam in Pakistan and the other on the Snake River.
As the 1970s arrived, power engineering and dam building were no longer the most popular kid on the block. The electronics industry was taking off, and there were increasing concerns about environmental issues tied to the dams and energy usage. With less student interest in power engineering, universities began changing their focus to the newest field of microelectronics. WSU’s power engineering program was almost lost, says Stephen Muchlinski (’78 BS, EE), smart grid manager with Tacoma Public Utilities.
However, a group of industry people and WSU faculty decided to fund WSU’s Power Professorship program with the intent of continuing to train students in electric power.
Along with A.L. Betts, chairman of WSU’s School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, one of the leaders of the efforts was Wendell Satre, who was chair of Washington Water Power at the time. Glen Hower, emeritus professor in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, remembers driving around the entire state with Axel Strom to drum up support for the effort. Strom, who was with Grant County PUD and had been a prime mover on building dams on the Columbia, was a great supporter of the power professorship idea, which was unusual in including support from both public and private utilities.
The Power Professorship program led to an endowed chair in power engineering, currently held by Anjan Bose in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.
As part of the program, an industrial advisory committee works with faculty on curricula and research. Companies support many senior design projects and provide internships for students. The support of the program also allowed the school to establish two annual conferences on protective relays.
“The Power Professorship program is very important to our business,’’ says Paul Wiegand ’79, senior vice president of energy operations at Puget Sound Energy. “We’re an electric and natural gas utility. It’s one of our primary sources of new, young talent in the electrical engineering arena.’’
When Tacoma Public Utilities director and CEO Gaines graduated with his electrical engineering degree in 1978, the supply of power engineers was barely keeping up with demand. He received nine job offers when he graduated.
After having participated in an internship with Puget Sound Energy and faced with so many job offers, he decided to return to the power utility for a year or two. He spent the next 27 years there.
“The primary benefit to our industry of the Power Professorship program has been the ongoing supply of high quality engineering undergraduates,’’ he said.
In fact, WSU engineering alumni have gone on to lead several of the largest utilities in the state.
The power program in the 1970s also attracted a young graduate student named Ed Schweitzer to Pullman, remembers Hower. Based on the research that Schweitzer conducted with Professor Al Flechsig, Schweitzer went on to start a company in his basement.
Schweitzer developed a digital protective relay, rather than the electro-mechanical relays that had been traditionally used in the power industry. Schweitzer’s company, Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories (SEL), started in 1982 with two employees.
When the company started, says Dave Whitehead ’89, vice president of research and development at SEL, utilities would buy Schweitzer’s new digital relay simply because it helped them determine quickly where on a transmission line they had a problem. They still kept their old electro-mechanical relays—until they figured out that the digital relay was better.
Today, the company employs 2,500 people. They have offices in 16 countries and their products are in 140 countries. Every utility in North America uses SEL products.
Next issue: New Problems and the Smart Grid
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