You know it as one of the great natural wonders of the world. But did you know that the power behind Niagara Falls also helps generate some of the least expensive electricity anywhere?
The United States and Canada have shared the Niagara River's water power—along with a commitment to preserve the beauty of the Falls—for nearly half a century. And our Niagara Power Project will continue to produce steady supplies of clean, carbon-free hydroelectricity for another 50 years with a new federal license which took effect September 1, 2007.
When the Niagara project produced its first power in 1961, it was the largest hydropower facility in the Western world at the time. Today, Niagara is the biggest electricity producer in New York State, generating 2.4 million kilowatts—enough power to light 24 million 100-watt bulbs at once! This low-cost electricity saves the state's residents and businesses hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
In 2006, the Power Authority completed a $300-million upgrade and modernization at the project’s Robert Moses Niagara Power Plant. All 13 turbines have been replaced and other improvements were made to generating equipment in the power dam, enabling the project to operate at maximum efficiency well into the 21st century. In 2012, we began a $460 million upgrade to the project's Lewiston Pump-Generating Plant.
The Niagara project, located about 4 1/2 miles downstream from the Falls, consists of two main facilities: the Robert Moses Niagara Power Plant, with 13 turbines, and the Lewiston Pump-Generating Plant, with 12 pump-turbines. In between the two plants is a forebay capable of holding about 740 million gallons of water; behind the Lewiston plant, a 1,900-acre reservoir holds additional supplies of this liquid fuel.
Put very simply, we divert water from the Niagara River—up to 375,000 gallons a second—and convey it through conduits under the City of Niagara Falls to Lewiston. From there, water flowing through the Robert Moses plant spins turbines that power generators, converting this mechanical energy into electrical energy.
At night, when electricity demand is low, the Lewiston units operate as pumps, transporting water from the forebay up to the plant's reservoir.
During the daytime, when electricity use peaks, the Lewiston pumps are reversed and become generators, similar to those at the Moses plant. In this way, the water can be used to produce electricity twice, increasing production and efficiency.
To balance the need for power with a desire to preserve the beauty of Niagara Falls, the United States and Canada signed a treaty in 1950 that regulates the amount of water diverted for hydroelectricity production. On average, more than 200,000 cubic feet per second (cfs), or 1.5 million gallons of water a second, flow from Lake Erie into the Niagara River. The 1950 pact requires that at least 100,000 cfs of water spill over the Falls during the daylight hours in the tourist season, April through October. This flow may be cut in half at night during this period and at all times the rest of the year.
Each winter, we at the Power Authority work cooperatively with Ontario Power Generation, a neighboring utility, to prevent ice on the upper Niagara River from impeding power production and causing the flooding of shoreline property.
One of our joint efforts is an 8,800-foot-long ice boom, consisting of steel pontoons linked together and anchored to the river bottom at Lake Erie's outlet to the Niagara River. The boom prevents the buildup of ice, yet allows water to continue flowing downstream.
When gale winds blow and temperatures drop below zero, three special-duty boats are used to patrol the river, breaking up the ice and maneuvering it over the Falls. The Power Authority's primary icebreaker, the William H. Latham, is a 77-ton vessel that literally glides over the top of the ice, crushing it into manageable chunks. The Breaker, a modified tugboat, assists the Latham. Ontario Hydro operates a similar icebreaker called the Niagara Queen.
The history of Niagara Falls begins with ice. Some 12,000 years ago, the ice that had blanketed North America began to thaw. This water gradually formed the Great Lakes, carving out the Niagara Gorge and the 350-foot drop that enables us to produce our power today.
The first hydroelectric generating station on the Niagara River was built in 1881. An 86-foot cascade of water generated electricity, which ran the machinery of local mills and lit up some of the village streets.
By 1896, the first long-distance transmission of electricity began flowing from Niagara Falls to Buffalo, some 26 miles away. The success of hydropower plants was evident with additional generating stations built along the Niagara River. But disaster struck in 1956 when the region's largest hydropower station was partially destroyed in a landslide.
With power production drastically cut, tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs were at stake and a long-simmering debate over Niagara's hydropower rights had come to a head. In 1957, Congress passed the Niagara Redevelopment Act, which granted the Power Authority a federal license to fully develop the United States' share of the Niagara River's hydroelectric potential. Within three years—on exactly the day predicted by Robert Moses, the "Master Builder" and then chairman of the Power Authority—the Niagara project produced first power.
President John F. Kennedy called the project, "an outstanding engineering achievement" and "an example to the world." Its reputation has attracted engineers and other visitors from around the world. You can see this outstanding achievement—and more—at the Power Vista, our visitors center.