By John S. McCormick

Utah Power and Light window display int the 1920's

Electric service in Utah began in the spring of 1881 when the Salt Lake City Light, Heat, and Power Company started supplying electricity to light some of Salt Lake City's streets, businesses, and public buildings. The next twenty years or so was a time of slow progress and faltering steps. As in the rest of the country, the initial enthusiasm about the possibilities and benefits of electricity changed to exasperation and skepticism. Most of Utah's early power plants were hydro-electric ones, small, isolated, locally owned, poorly financed and equipped, and located on canyon streams where they were subject to uncertain fluctuations. Technical knowledge was limited and early equipment unsophisticated. Service was unreliable, available only part-time, and only slowly extended throughout the state. By the early 1890s, after more than a decade, only five Utah cities and towns had electricity: Salt Lake, Ogden, Logan, Provo, and Park City.

In the 1890s the situation began to change. In the first place, a technological explosion took place. Vast improvements were made in generators and in the means of distributing the electrical current they produced. The regulator made it possible to maintain a steady electric load even as demands on the line changed from minute to minute. With the invention of the switch, current could be shifted from one line to another in case of trouble. The development of alternating current and the use of transformers allowed electricity to be generated at a low voltage, stepped up to a higher voltage for more efficient transmission, and then stepped back down to a lower voltage for use, making electricity much safer to use and vastly increasing the area an electric power plant could service. Efficient electrical motors began to be built so that electricity could be used not only for lighting, but also as a source of power for machinery, thus creating a huge demand for daytime power and putting the electric power industry on a much firmer basis than it had been previously as a part-time industry supplying power for lighting. Quickly electric motors found their way into factories of all kinds, replacing steam engines and sending them to the scrap heap. In 1899 electricity ran only five percent of the industrial machinery in the United States. By 1914 it was thirty percent and by 1919, seventy percent. In Utah the first industries to convert to electricity were mines, which were an increasingly important part of Utah's economy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and railroads, both inner-city street railways and interurban systems, and their history is closely linked with the history of the electric power industry in Utah.

The second factor transforming early electric power industry was the consolidation of small, individually owned stations into larger systems. In Utah that process culminated with the formation of Utah Power & Light Company, which was organized 6 September 1912 as a subsidiary of a large holding company, Electric Bond and Share Company (EBASCO) of New York, to consolidate dozens of large and small electric power companies in Utah and surrounding states. Holding companies were increasingly popular in the U.S. beginning in the early twentieth century and reached their peak in the 1920s. With the utility industry they were particularly prevalent. By 1929 a group of sixteen generated over 80 percent of all electric energy in the country, and three systems accounted for over 45 percent.

Following its formation UP&L set out to acquire other electric companies and unify them into one large, integrated "super-power system" rather than operate them as separate, independent entities. Within four years it had purchased twenty-seven, and eventually absorbed more than one hundred thirty. By 1922, on its tenth anniversary, UP&L had made considerable progress toward its goal. It served 205 communities in four states, had 83,000 customers, and operated forty generating plants with an installed capacity of 224,000 kilowatts. Four newly built or expanded plants on the Bear River provided half of that capacity. Each of the forty plants on the Bear River provided half of that capacity. Each of the forty plants was connected through a system of high-voltage transmission lines with a new main distribution center in Salt Lake City. Many other new substations had been built, and distribution lines had been upgraded and extended. Bear Lake had been developed as a storage reservoir with 23 miles of inlet and outlet channels that carried the entire flow of the Bear River in and out of the lake; and a pumping plant, capable of delivering 3000 acre-feet of water per day, had been built at its north end.

By the early 1920s, then, the modern age of electricity was firmly established in Utah. One company supplied most of the state's electric power and was on its way to becoming one of Utah's largest corporations. Consumption of electricity had increased dramatically. Industry was the chief user, followed by residential consumers, commercial users, and cities and town. No longer an expensive luxury of limited application and questionable reliability, electricity had taken its place as an integral part of people's lives.

Since then, UP&L's dominant position has continued: at present it supplies 80-90 percent of Utah's electricity and serves more than half a million customers in about 400 cities and towns in Utah, southeastern Idaho, and southwestern Wyoming; its 7,000 miles of transmission lines are found in all but three counties of the state and tie in with thirteen utilities; major links bring in electricity from Wyoming, the Pacific Northwest, the Glen Canyon Dam, and, when needed, steam generating plants in Arizona and New Mexico. These same lines are often used to export electricity from the state or to pass it through in association with regional power pools. By the late 1980s the power capacity of UP&Ls generating units was 1,950 megawatts, whereas it had been 621 MW in 1955 and 1,014 MW in 1965. Thermal steam plants utilizing coal accounted for 96 percent of its output, and hydro-electric, oil, gas and geo-thermal plants accounted for the remaining 4 percent.

Historically, production and consumption of electricity in Utah has steadily, and during some periods, spectacularly, increased, and in addition to Utah Power and Light there have always been other important sources of electric power. The Kennecott plant in Magna has a capacity of 175 MW, and U.S. Steel Corporation (Geneva Works) in Utah County operated a plant with a capacity of approximately 63 MW. The Bureau of Reclamation supplies power from the Flaming Gorge Dam in northeastern Utah and from the Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona. The combined capacity of the three generating units at Flaming Gorge is 108 MW. About half of this power is sold to municipalities in Utah. A hydro-electric plant at Deer Creek Reservoir, which the Bureau of Reclamation also operates produces 5 MW, and two hydroelectric units that the Weber Basin Water and Conservancy District bought from the Bureau together have their own distribution system; the largest are at Provo, Logan, Bountiful, and Murray. There are also 11 rural-electric cooperatives serving the state. The Bridger Valley, Dixie, Escalante, Flowell, Mexican Hat, Raft River, Wells cooperatives buy all of their power from one or more of the above sources, including UP&L. The Empire (Monticello) and Mt. Wheeler (western Tooele County) cooperatives normally buy all of their power, but also have small generating units, while the Garkane and Moon Lane co-ops produce much of their own power. In addition to UP&L there are two privately owned electric companies in Utah: California-Pacific Utilities Company, which serves Iron and Washington Counties; and the Strawberry Water Users Association of Payson. Finally a small generating plant is located at Dugway Proving Ground for use there, and small private generating units are found in shopping malls, apartment houses, factories, and hospitals.

Recently there have been two important developments in Utah's electric power industry. One is the Intermountain Power Project (IPP), a 1,522 MW coal-fired, electric power plant at Lynndyl in rural Millard County about 20 miles from Delta, built to provide electricity for cities in California, for publicly-owned electrical systems in Utah, and for UP&L. The owner is the Intermountain Power Agency (IPA), a political subdivision of the State of Utah. IPA was formed by twenty-three municipalities within Utah and financed with tax-exempt revenue bonds, using as collateral power sales contracts between IPA and thirty-six power purchasers located in Utah, Nevada, and California. Nearly 75 percent of its power sales go to the City of Los Angeles and five other municipalities in Southern California. Construction of the Intermountain Power Project began in 1981 and was finished in 1987, while the first generating unit began to produce electricity in 1986.

A second major development in recent years was the merger on 9 January 1989 of UP&L and PacifiCorp of Portland, Oregon. PacifiCorp was founded in 1910 as the Pacific Power & Light Company and changed its name in 1984 to reflect its broadened operations. In addition to serving 663,000 customers in 240 communities in the six states of Washington, Oregon, California, Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho, it was also involved in mining operations in the U.S. and Canada, long distance telecommunication service in Alaska, local telephone service in nine western states and other business ventures. The merger of the two created the third largest electric utility in the western United States, serving 1.2 million customers in seven states.

Disclaimer: Information on this site was converted from a hard cover book published by University of Utah Press in 1994. Any errors should be directed towards the University of Utah Press.