Before wind and solar, nuclear or coal, there continues to be hydropower to generate electricity — water falling from great heights under pressure to spin large turbines to create energy, cleanly and economically, since the late 19th century.

Southern California Edison’s (SCE) Kern River 3 hydroelectric power plant is part of the utility’s hydroelectric generation system, which plays a critical role in the company’s diverse energy portfolio, particularly during periods of drought.

And now, after nearly 100 years, Kern River 3, which sits on the scenic Kern River 50 miles east of Bakersfield, is getting a facelift to help ensure this important power source continues to be viable.

Toby Gibson, a manager in SCE’s Eastern Hydro Division, said Kern River 3 made an important contribution to the development of private electric power utilities in Southern California and nationwide during hydropower’s developing years.

“Kern River 3 is a rare example of a powerhouse designed with architectural beauty and sophistication for that time,” said Gibson, noting that construction on the power plant site began in 1919, but it wasn’t until 1921 that it started generating electricity. “When Kern River 3 was completed, it was referred to as ‘the most important forward step in hydroelectric practice in recent years.’”

Kern River 3 is part of SCE’s Eastern Hydro Division, incorporating hydro-generating plants in the eastern Sierra Nevada mountains, the southern Sierra mountains, and the Ontario, San Bernardino and Banning areas in the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains. Collectively, the power plants can generate more than 160 megawatts of electricity, enough to power about 104,000 homes. Most have been in service since the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

SCE has begun a year-long renovation of Kern River 3, repairing cracks and upgrading equipment in three major parts of the plant’s water conveyance system — the sandbox, a large containment box that holds water before its run through the turbines, the 50-foot-high Fairview Dam, where the worn and eroded concrete surface of the dam is being replaced with reinforced steel and concrete, and the intake structure, which includes replacing the intake house which houses the equipment to control operation of the water flow equipment.

Electrical controls that operate the water control gates at the sandbox are also being replaced, along with concrete replacement, where necessary, in more than 15 miles of tunnels which carry the water to the turbines that spin the generators to create electricity.

Gibson explained that access to the work locations is complicated and challenging.  

“The dam’s location on the Kern River required obtaining permits and approvals for the work from federal and state agencies,” said Gibson. “Because of its historical place along the river, SCE had to obtain special approval from the California Historic Preservation Office for some of the work. A scaffolding structure was also built across the 135-foot face of the dam to give workers access to that work site.”

Special safety rules are guiding the work in the tunnels. All tunnel workers are specially trained and a mine rescue team made up of workers is ready to respond to any emergency. Access into the tunnels required cutting through a foot of concrete with workers using electric and diesel powered equipment to perform the work. To accomplish the work in the eight-feet-wide tunnels, special carts were constructed to carry equipment through this narrow space.

SCE also operates its Northern Hydro Division, known as Big Creek. Established in 1911, Big Creek includes a watershed of 1,200 square miles, nine powerhouses, 23 generating units, six major lakes and a vast infrastructure that supports 1,000 megawatts of cost effective, renewable and environmentally sustainable power, enough to power about 650,000 homes. From start to finish, water flowing through the Big Creek system travels more than 50 miles and falls 6,637 feet.

Following SCE’s renovation of Kern River 3, the plant will return to the company’s hydroelectric power system, which plays a critical role in the company’s diverse energy portfolio, regardless of weather conditions.