Local Hydro plant providing electricity for 125 years


Local officials and representatives of Central Rivers Power recently held a “Celebration of 125 years of Hydro Power”. The celebration, sponsored by Envision Williamston, the Town of Williamston and Central Rivers Power was held Friday (Nov. 20) at the Williamston Municipal Center.

The celebration recognized the fact that the lower Pelzer powerhouse on the Saluda River, which was constructed in 1895, was one of the first to convey electricity over a transmission line and continues to provide power today. The dam and power house, which is located on the Saluda River near Williamston, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The facility still operates in almost the same form and fashion as it did 125 years ago, according to Central Rivers Power Operational Manager Beth Harris. The project holds a Federal Energy Regulatory License (FERC), that was recently renewed for 40 years. “This is not an easy task as there are many stakeholders and resource agencies involved in the relicensing process,” Harris said.

The Lower Pelzer facility produces approximately 10,500 MW hours annually, which equates to enough power for approximately 2,200 homes, according to Harris.

Harris provided historical information about the construction of the dam and powerhouse and details on the power being generated there. The ceremony also included comments by Williamston Mayor Mack Durham, Mayor-elect Rockey Burgess and Harris. Those in attendance also enjoyed cake celebrating the historic milestone.

Harris said, “Central Rivers Power is honored to be a part of this special ceremony to recognize the hard work and dedication to produce clean energy from the Saluda River. We are keeping history and our heritage alive.”

Harris said, “It is amazing to see the craftsmanship and detail involved to construct these structure without modern day equipment. Each stone and brick were placed by manual and animal labor.”
Harris said that in August 1995, during Hurricane Jerry, the top 7 feet of the dam was destroyed along with a 4 feet flashboard due to the high flows and water pressure. “While building the dam crest back to original height, we could see large foot prints in the masonry. Barefoot foot prints!”
Harris said the dam crest was restored with a similar granite stone, cut to match the size of the original stone and doweled to the existing dam for additional stability. Rock anchors were installed for additional stability along with two new sluice gates for flow passage.

“The power house is home to five turbines with a total installed capacity of 3.3mw,” Harris said.
According to Harris, three turbines were originally installed in the facility when it was constructed in 1895 with provisions to add two more turbines in the future when additional power was needed. The generators were designed, manufactured and installed by General Electric (GE). The three original turbines are 750 kw double runner horizontal Francis. In 1930 one more 750kw and a 300kw unit were installed.
A three mile transmission line was installed from Williamston to Pelzer Manufacturing located upstream in Pelzer.
Harris said the upper Pelzer hydro facility was built later as the mill and power needs grew.
She said Thomas Edison may have visited the site at some time to see the transmission line, since it was one of the first facilities to convey electricity over a transmission line. She said Nikola Tesla may also have visited the site. The construction took place during the Tesla vs Edison era (AC vs. DC). “However, no photos have been found to confirm these stories.”

The dam is 32 ft. in height with four ft. of wooden flashboard on top of the crest. The spillway is 310 ft. wide and designed to pass the 100 year flood flow. During Hurricane Jerry, the flow increased to 12,000 cfs.


Looking to the future, Harris said Central Rivers Power intends to continue operation of the plant as long as possible.”

They currently sell generation to Duke Energy, however as equipment ages, and costs to maintain the site increase, and with Duke paying less due to lower fuel costs and construction of their new facility downstream, the future will decide.
Harris said Central Rivers is looking to partner with the Town of Williamston to sell Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) and also looking at the possibility of adding solar and battery storage at their four facilities on the Saluda River.
Central Rivers Power owns the hydro plant at Piedmont, the two in Pelzer and another at Ware Shoals, in addition to others throughout the country.
Also attending was site Supervisor Chris Mahaffey and technicians Tuan Tran and Jeremiah Armstrong.

Mayor Durham said, “Just outside of our municipal limits, this hydroelectric facility has been creating green energy for 125 years. During the entire lifetime of its operation, not one on site injury has occurred. In fact, along with this amazing safety record, it is the oldest continually operating electrical generator in the world. It is amazing to think of the unique historic significance of that statement.”

“Hydroelectricity is both green and clean energy as it takes the potential energy of the water of the Saluda River and converts it into electricity that can be used across our region,’ Durham said. “We are truly blesses to have access to the green energy produced by a clean hydroelectric process from the Central Rivers dams along the Saluda River.”
Durham also recognized that Richard Greer, who he described as “a very important member of our team” and “a visionary leader of the idea of partnering together to recognize the important historic and present contribution of the Central Rivers lower dam.”

Greer, who passed away one week earlier, was working on several development projects along the Saluda River which he had hoped could be powered by the green energy provided by the Central Rivers facilities.

Rockey Burgess recounted several personal stories about the transmission of power to Pelzer. He said that his great granddad Virgil Gilreath was an operator at the facility when the transmission lines were built. “Nobody had ever done that before,” he said. According to Burgess, stocks for Pelzer Manufacturing dropped $25 per share because people thought the idea of transmitting electricity over a line was crazy. He recounted that his great grandfather had said some people in Pelzer held buckets under the lines thinking the electricity would drop off.

Celebrating 125 years of Hydro power
Local officials and representatives of Central Rivers Power recently held a “Celebration of 125 years of Hydro Power” which included a field trip to the lower Pelzer hydro plant on the Saluda River. The facility is located on the Saluda River just outside the Williamston town limits. Pictured are (L-R) Central Rivers Power Operational Manager (West and South) Beth Harris, P.E., Pelzer Town Councilman Eddie Waits, Envision Williamston Executive Director Lisa Cope, Williamston Councilman/Mayor Elect Rockey Burgess, Central Rivers Power site supervisor Chris Mahaffey, Mark Marienfeld, Dee Marienfeld, Williamston Mayor Mack Durham, Sharon Durham, Jim Darby. (Journal photo)