When the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) built the Richland Substation in Benton County in 1949, there were only two federally owned hydroelectric dams on the Columbia River -- the Army Corps of Engineers' Bonneville Dam and the Bureau of Reclamation's Grand Coulee Dam. The output of their generators was fed into BPA's Master Grid, which by 1945 had 3,000 circuit miles of high-voltage transmission lines and approximately 55 substations. After victory in World War II, this would grow to become the BPA's Pacific Northwest Transmission System. Many of the physical components of that system built between 1938 and 1974, including the Richland Substation, have been determined eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP). Some of these assets, while not themselves necessarily unique or unusually noteworthy, draw their historical significance from their roles in the remarkable first 36 years of the BPA, during which it powered the aluminum smelters, shipyards, airplane manufacturers, nuclear laboratories, and other industries that were essential to the 1945 defeat of Axis Powers; brought the manifold benefits of electricity to the region's rural areas; and fostered the creation of public electric utilities, to which it would sell electricity at cost.
The Richland Substation
The Richland Substation occupies 1.28 acres on Thayer Drive in the city of Richland, Benton County, Washington, immediately adjacent to State Route 240 and less than 1,000 feet from the Yakima River. It is one of more than 260 substations that are the interface between BPA's high-voltage transmission lines and local and regional utilities.
The substation is of a common type within the BPA transmission network. Its two basic components are a switchyard and a control house. In the switchyard, three BPA high-voltage (115-kV) transmission lines -- from White Bluffs, Red Mountain, and Badger Canyon -- terminate at a steel latticework supported by five towers. This structure holds conductors, circuit breakers, insulators, and other electrical equipment that connect incoming transmission lines to ground-mounted transformers and related equipment. These reduce the voltage to consumer-usable levels and feed it into distribution lines for delivery to customers. The distribution lines do not belong to BPA; they are built, owned, and maintained by public or private utilities. The distributed electricity is for the most part produced by generators spun by the flow of the Columbia River.
The substation's 372-square-foot Control House is a modest building, constructed of vertical aluminum panels and resting on concrete footings. Although later modified, its original form followed the standard Aluminum Control House Type-190 model, an unadorned, Utilitarian-style architecture in wide use by BPA at the time.
The northwest facade of the Control House has a single door flanked by an eight-light casement window to its left and a four-light metal-framed fixed window, with the top two lights covered, to its right. This facade also holds a metal fire-extinguisher cabinet, a siren, and alarm bells. Equipment mounted on the building's other exterior walls include an HVAC unit, a meter box, and an exhaust fan. The interior of the building houses control equipment, battery racks, and office furniture. The floor is vinyl composite tiles and the walls are asbestos board. The ceiling holds fluorescent-lighting fixtures.
Dams and the Great Depression
When development of the first two federal dams on the Columbia, Bonneville and Grand Coulee, was under consideration, there was powerful opposition to both projects from private utilities, congressional budget hawks, and promoters of other plans. Had it not been for the Great Depression, the development of the Columbia River may well have been delayed, perhaps for decades. But when President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) took office in March 1933, a staggering number of Americans -- more than 13 million -- were unemployed. The new administration wanted to move quickly to provide jobs, and in June Congress passed the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA). Among other things, it created and generously funded the Public Works Administration (PWA), giving Roosevelt great discretion in allocating the money. Unlike several other New Deal programs, PWA did not hire workers directly, but contracted with private companies to construct large-scale public-works projects that would employ tens of thousands. Two of the biggest would be Bonneville Dam and Grand Coulee Dam. Roosevelt, within five months of taking office, authorized PWA funding to get both projects started before the end of 1933.
For nearly two years, work on Grand Coulee proceeded on the authority of the president's emergency powers. Congress, with the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1935, explicitly authorized the construction and ratified all the contracts and agreements previously entered into. Bonneville Dam received similar congressional validation with passage of the Bonneville Project Act in August 1937. It established the Bonneville Project as a temporary agency to market and transmit power generated by Bonneville Dam. In 1940 President Roosevelt issued an executive order that changed the name of the agency to the Bonneville Power Administration, and added to its responsibilities the marketing of electricity generated by Grand Coulee Dam. Although created as a temporary agency, as of 2022 BPA had remained in place for 85 years.
BPA's Pacific Northwest Transmission System
The Bonneville Power Administration owns no dams. Each of the 31 federal dams on the Columbia, Snake, and Willamette rivers is owned and operated by either the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) or the United State Bureau of Reclamation (USBR). In early planning, generating electricity to sell was a secondary purpose for both of the first two dams to be built. Grand Coulee (USBR) was expected to use most of its electrical output to pump water up to Banks Lake, from where it would irrigate the fertile but arid Columbia Plateau (something it did not start doing in earnest until 1952). The Corps of Engineers' Bonneville Dam and its lock had the original goal of easing navigation on the lower Columbia and drowning the nearly impassable Cascade Rapids under a reservoir. Before either project was complete, much of the focus had turned to spreading the benefits of electricity to small towns, rural areas, and family farms in the Northwest -- places and people that private utilities had mostly shunned as unprofitable.
The BPA Transmission System's historical period is divided into two phases. The Master Grid Development Period ran from 1938 to 1945, when BPA, with funding from the New Deal's PWA and Works Projects Administration (WPA), began building out the infrastructure to carry high-voltage electricity to substations for distribution to local utilities around the Northwest. Extending this system to rural areas slowed shortly before America's entry into World War II, then stopped entirely as war industries sucked up most of the power the dams could produce.
The transmission network's second era, the System Expansion Period, ran from 1946 to 1974. The Richland Substation was built in 1949. The specific impetus for the substation was to meet the post-war electrical needs of the Yakima Valley, in particular the growing cities of Richland and Pasco, and the nearby Hanford Nuclear Site, formerly Hanford Engineer Works.
Keeping Power Public
However it is produced, there are three essential steps to providing electricity -- generation, transmission, and distribution. BPA's transmission system is the link between generation and distribution -- it carries the electrical output of 31 federal dams (and other sources) to its substations, from where lines owned by public and private utilities distribute the power to end-users.
Although they opposed the competition posed by public power, when it became clear that the federal government was going to begin exploiting the generating potential of the Columbia River, private utility companies generally were content to let public monies bear the massive cost of building huge dams. Similarly, the transmission of high-voltage electricity was an expensive proposition, requiring the purchase of narrow swaths of land and the erection of thousands of large steel towers to bear heavy cables over long distances. Where the for-profit utility companies still hoped to secure a lucrative role was in the last step of the process -- the distribution of BPA electricity to paying customers. History being a guide, it was widely assumed that private utilities would string transmission lines only where profitable, and would charge what the market would bear.
Two provisions of the Bonneville Project Act ensured this would not happen. Section 4(a) of the act read: "In order to insure [sic] that the facilities for the generation of electric energy at the Bonneville project shall be operated for the benefit of the general public, and particularly of domestic and rural consumers, the administrator shall at all times, in disposing of electric energy generated at said project, give preference and priority to public bodies and cooperatives" (50 Stat. 731, Sec. 4). This is known colloquially as "the preference clause."
Section 6 of the statute vested in the agency's administrator the authority to set the rates to be charged (subject to approval by the Federal Power Commission), and noted that such rates "may" be uniform. (50 Stat. 731, Sec. 6) [italics added].
Precedence and Postage-Stamp Pricing
In November 1937 Roosevelt appointed James Delmage "J. D." Ross (1872-1939) to be first administrator of what was still called the Bonneville Project. Ross was a single-minded advocate of public power, especially hydropower, and the "Father of Seattle City Light." Ross launched the BPA's Master Grid Development program, and on July 9, 1938, the first transmission line from Bonneville Dam was energized, feeding electricity to a substation that served Oregon's Cascade Locks, a town just three and a half miles from the dam.
Also in 1938, Ross obtained $10.75 million from the Rural Electrification Administration to build transmission lines linking Bonneville Dam to Vancouver, The Dalles, and Eugene. He then turned to the details of getting the benefits of hydropower to rural farms and small communities. Using the discretion the statute gave, Ross declared that the agency would sell electricity at "postage stamp" rates, i.e. the price would be the same without regard to the distance between the source and the user. He recommended a uniform rate of $17.50 per kilowatt year, which was approved by the Federal Power Commission in June 1938. It would remain the same for the next 27 years.
PUDs and REAs
Upon Ross's untimely death in 1939, Paul D. Raver (1894-1963) took over as BPA administrator. During his early tenure, BPA helped citizens establish electric cooperatives and public utility districts. Within three years, more than 30 public utilities had been formed in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, providing electricity to more than 40,000 customers in rural communities and remote farms -- the very people that private utility companies had ignored as unprofitable. Raver would lead BPA through some of its most challenging and productive years. After retiring in 1954, he traced Ross's career in reverse and became the superintendant of Seattle City Light.
The most important "public bodies and cooperatives" given preferential access to BPA's electricity were Public Utility Districts (PUDs) and cooperative Rural Electric Associations (REAs). PUDs were a creation of Washington state's initiative process, while REAs initially received funding through a Roosevelt executive order. Several PUDs and cooperative REAs were created before Bonneville and Grand Coulee produced even a trickle of saleable electricity.
Public Utility Districts (PUDs): Until 1930, only incorporated municipalities in Washington were authorized to establish publicly owned utilities. Seattle, Tacoma, and a number of smaller cities had done so, but those living in unincorporated areas remained at the mercy of investor-owned private utilities. Well more than half the farms in the Washington had no access to electricity, and in 1928 the Washington State Grange and its allies collected more than 60,000 signatures in support of an initiative to authorize public utility districts (PUDs) in unincorporated areas. The bill passed the House of Representatives, but the state Senate refused to go along. In 1930 the voters had their say, and the Public Utility District Act, despite fervent and well-funded opposition from the for-profit utilities industry, passed by a substantial margin.
The opening section of the law read:
"The purpose of this act is to authorize the establishment of public utility districts to conserve the water and power resources of the State of Washington for the benefit of the people thereof, and to supply public utility service, including water and electricity, for all purposes" (1932 Wash. Laws, Ch. 1, Sec. 1).
PUDs could encompass entire counties, but need not. Countywide districts could be proposed by county commissioners or by a petition signed by 10 percent of the qualified voters. Smaller districts required only a petition. In either case, the decision was left to the voters, with a simple majority needed for approval.
Concerns over lawsuits challenging the law's validity slowed its implementation. The first PUD -- Mason County District No. 1 -- was not formed until 1934, as was the Benton PUD. The pace of PUD formation picked up after the law was validated by the state supreme court in 1936. By 1940 there were 23 PUDs statewide. In 2022 there were 28, of which 24 provide electrical service (the other four supply water, sewer, and/or telecommunications services only). Between 2016 and 2020, 78.4 percent of the electricity distributed by the Benton PUD and 86 percent of that distributed by Richland's nonprofit, city-operated electrical utility came from hydropower.
Rural Electric Associations (REAs): In October 1935 President Roosevelt signed an executive order creating the Rural Electrification Administration. Congress, with the Rural Electrification Act of 1936, made the department a more permanent agency of the federal government.
The REA was a pure lending agency, financing through loans the infrastructure needed to supply electrical service to sparsely populated rural areas, with family farms a particular focus. It loaned money for generating plants, for transmission and distribution lines, even for wiring homes and purchasing electrical appliances. Interest rates were low and repayment periods long. It caught on quickly; rural residents joined together to form nonprofit cooperatives and build their own electrical-distribution systems, using government loans. By the end of 1936 nearly 100 cooperatives in 26 states had signed loan agreements with the REA. Within five years, $410 million had been distributed. An important provision of the law guaranteed that individual members would not be held personally liable if their cooperative defaulted on an REA loan.
Rural electric associations are similar in many respects to public utility districts. Like PUDs, REAs are not-for-profit, but they are member-owned rather than community-owned. The members of REA cooperatives are those who directly benefit from the services provided, while PUDs are owned by the entire communities they serve. The most obvious similarity is that both extend the massive benefits of electrification to areas that private utility companies were loath to serve, and provide that electricity at a reasonable, cost-based price. They were spectacularly successful.
Although authorized five years after public utility districts, electrical cooperatives in several areas in Washington were delivering power to rural areas before PUDs were fully up and running. Although the Benton PUD was formed in 1934, it provided no electricity until after 1940. In contrast, the Benton REA was incorporated on April 19, 1937, and in May 1938 began lighting 89 rural farms in Benton and Yakima counties. For the next decade it purchased its electricity from a private utility company, but in 1948 it began receiving BPA power at wholesale prices.
From Peace to War
On March 22, 1941, after eight years of construction, Grand Coulee Dam finally was connected by a transmission line to Bonneville Dam and began feeding power into the BPA system. It was just in time. One of the early criticisms of the two dams was the claim that they could produce far more electricity than was needed. Electricity for which there was no demand could not be stored, so critics argued that most of the Columbia River's flow would be spilled over the dams and essentially wasted. The exigencies of war soon silenced the critics.
War in Europe began with Germany's invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. In November, pressed by the Roosevelt administration, Congress ended an arms embargo on Britain and France and authorized the sale of armaments to nations fighting the Axis Powers (Germany, Italy, and, after 1940, Japan), but only on a "cash and carry" basis. Still, it was a step away from the isolationism that had characterized American foreign policy since World War I.
In June 1940 France fell to the Nazis, and by early 1941 Great Britain had run out of money. Anti-war sentiment had further faded, and in March that year Congress passed the Lend-Lease Act. By late April, Great Britain and other nations were receiving huge quantities of war materiel from America, on credit. And with it appearing ever more likely that America would not avoid direct involvement, the U.S. intensified its previously modest efforts to rearm itself should that day come. It came soon, on December 7, 1941, when Japan launched a surprise attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
In December 1939, the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa) had become BPA's first commercial customer. There would be many more, as BPA's early focus on rural electrification turned to powering the plants, factories, and laboratories that would be instrumental in the Allied victory. BPA's high-voltage grid became the highway that fed power to shipyards, aircraft industries, food-processing plants, and, most crucially, a booming aluminum industry. These were known as direct service industries (DSI) and purchased high-voltage power directly from BPA without the involvement of public or private utilities.
In August 1942, with American now a combatant, BPA joined with other electricity producers to form the Northwest Power Pool, a voluntary linking of all 11 electrical systems, public and private, in the Northwest. By 1943, 12 large aluminum plants were operating in the region, producing massive quantities of the strong, lightweight metal for bombers and fighter planes and soaking up 60 percent of the power sold by BPA. Operating 24 hours a day, industries powered by BPA electricity had by war's end produced 750 ships, 10,000 combat aircraft, and thousands of B-17 and B-29 heavy bombers.
In March 1943 the DuPont Company began constructing facilities on 625 square miles of land bordering the Columbia River that was condemned by the federal government. It included the towns of White Bluffs, Hanford, and Richland, whose residents were forced to pack up and leave. Also ousted were Native American tribes, including the Wanapum, who had long frequented the area for fishing, hunting, and ceremonial purposes. Access to traditional fishing areas was at first restricted and then revoked altogether. (Richland became self-governing again in 1958; White Bluffs and Hanford have remained under federal jurisdiction).
Called the Hanford Engineer Works, DuPont's site was part of the super-secret Manhattan Project, and its purpose was to produce plutonium for atomic bombs. The second (and so far last) atomic bomb used in warfare was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, on August 9, 1945, forcing Japan's surrender within days. It was a plutonium-implosion device, and the plutonium was produced at Hanford. The Columbia River supplied the water necessary to cool Hanford's reactors and other equipment, and BPA supplied the huge amounts of electricity needed to operate the facility. President Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) later said, "Without Grand Coulee and Bonneville dams it would have been almost impossible to win this war" (Living New Deal, "Bonneville Power Administration").
With the war won, BPA could again focus on its efforts on building out its transmission system. Its System Expansion Period started in 1946 and ran until 1974. As noted above, it was early during this period that the Richland Substation was completed.
Critics' prewar claims that Grand Coulee and Bonneville dams could produce more electrical power than could be sold proved no more accurate after war's end. To the contrary, as BPA expanded its transmission network, the primary limiting factor was insufficient generating capacity. Although the extraordinary demands of wartime ebbed, many of the war's direct-service industries, including power-hungry aluminum plants, maintained operations, now meeting both military and civilian demands. Boeing and Hanford also continued to draw large amounts of power. Lumber mills, which in earlier days generated most of their electricity by burning wood waste, switched to federal power when that waste was diverted for the production of cellulose-based plastics. Another factor feeding potential demand were huge population increases in parts of the region BPA sought to serve.
In 1948 a new powerhouse was completed at Grand Coulee, raising the number of generators to 18 and significantly increasing its electrical output. In making future plans, BPA could also anticipate the electricity that would come from additional dams. Construction on the USACE's McNary Dam, the third federal dam on the Columbia River, began in 1947 and it first went into service in 1953. In 1949 work began on Corp's Chief Joseph Dam, with the first eight of an eventual 27 generators coming on line in 1955, and in 1957 The Dalles Dam, also a Corps project, started producing electricity. Additional federal dams would be built in later years on the Columbia and other rivers.
After World War II ended, BPA had two primary goals -- to retain as customers as many of the wartime industrial plants as possible, and to extend public-power development and rural electrification in the Pacific Northwest. Although it had continued throughout the war years to negotiate contracts with PUDs and rural electric cooperatives, it was only able to transmit power to those with existing facilities. There was a backlog of as yet unserved customers, including the Benton REA, which had been buying its power from Pacific Power and Light.
From 1940 to 1948, the population of the Pacific Northwest grew by 36.4 percent, compared to 11 percent for the rest of the country, and it was estimated that a regional growth rate twice that of the nation would persist into the mid-1950s. More specifically, Benton County's population grew from 12,053 to 51,370 between 1940 and 1950. Richland's population, swollen by workers at the Hanford Engineer Works, soared well more than 9,000 percent in the same period, from 247 in 1940 to 21,809 in 1950. Pasco, in neighboring Franklin County, had a much smaller increase, but still grew from 3,913 to 10,228 during the decade. BPA was scrambling to meet the increased commercial and public demand, building out its transmission network and, still headed by Paul Raver, encouraging the creation of additional PUDs, REAs, and municipally owned electric utilities.
Once carry-over funds from the war years ran out, BPA, in the late 1940s, had to request from and justify to Congress appropriations for extending its transmission system, and each new request needed to garner political support from an often-hostile, Republican-dominated Congress. Up until 1949, the Richland area took its power from substations connected to two 115-kV BPA lines originating in Midway, one going to Grandview and one to Pasco. Given the region's population growth, it was forecast that these lines soon would be insufficient to service rapidly increasing demands in the Yakima Valley, and particularly at Richland, the Hanford site, and Pasco.
The future site of the Richland Substation and a part of the path for the transmission line from Grandview were owned by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), which had replaced the War Department in that role in 1946. A letter agreement dated October 17, 1947, transferred jurisdiction over, but not ownership of, those properties to BPA, which began construction on a 115 kV transmission line from Grandview to Richland. The agreement was amended in June 1948 to require BPA to reimburse the AEC for approximately $425,000 advanced as part of the 1947 agreement. Both the transmission line and the substation were completed by the end of 1948. On January 25, 1949, the line was energized, and the region's immediate electrical needs were met. In 2018, BPA announced plans to replace the Richland Substation's control house after nearly 75 years of service.
Today (2022), BPA operates more than 15,000 circuit miles of transmission line extending into seven states and provides more than 50 percent of the electricity used within its service area. The original BPA model -- selling electricity at cost and encouraging public and investor-owned utilities -- has been adopted by federal transmission systems throughout the nation. In each, hundreds of substations, many similar in form and function to that in Richland, are the critical link between the high-voltage output of massive hydroelectric projects and the more modest daily needs of people and businesses.