The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio


January 26, 2012


ASHTABULA — It was the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company’s economic stimulus plan for helping northeast Ohio emerge from the “General Depression” of the 1930s.

The electricity generation plant at Ashtabula was built in 1929-1930 to complement CEI plants near Cleveland and Avon. Although it would take a decade and a world war to fulfill the potential of these plants, electricity-intensive industries like the Union Carbide “Electro-Met,” National Carbide and National Distillers plants came to Ashtabula Township’s Chemical Shore because power was available.

The $11 million project was announced in 1929. The first generating unit of the new plant was placed in operation Nov. 5, 1930. The company planned to eventually have eight 50,000 kilowatt units at Ashtabula.

The Ashtabula Station was the eastern end of the utility’s 132,000-volt transmission system that stretched across 1,700 square miles in Cuyahoga, Lake, Geauga, Ashtabula and Lorain counties. It provided the power that pierced the darkness of downtown retail districts, factory floors and rural milking parlors alike. Its power was transformed into the electromagnetic waves that delivered radio broadcasts about our fighting men and women during World War II. Later, it powered the tubes that made the Beverly Hillbillies, Chet Huntley and soap opera characters as familiar to us as our neighbors. Its power also heated our soup, cooled our milk, washed and dried our clothes, zapped our bugs, computed our taxes and toasted our bread.

Fired by coal, the plant featured an automated handling system that included a bridge crane that could move 200 to 300 tons per hour. The rotary railroad car dumper could unload 20 cars an hour. An undated brochure that was produced for visitors to the plant stated its hungry boilers consumed 2,000 tons of coal a day.

The most distinguishing features of the plant were the smoke stacks. Each stack served two boilers and rose more than 300 feet above the lake level.

In late 1936 the utility announced that it would add immediately another 50,000 kilowatt generator at the plant because of an “uptrend in use of electricity ... since 1932.” The addition expanded the plant’s capacity to 527,000 kilowatts.

“The hum of the turbine generator is the sound of America’s heart,” stated the visitor’s brochure. “In years ahead, more of these marvelous machines will go into Illuminating plants to fill the ever-growing demand for power in this ‘Best Location in the Nation.’”

The words were not prophetic, however. The loss of industry in northeast Ohio, recession and efficiency measures have reduced the demand for power. In recent years, the old coal-fired plants in FirstEnergy’s system have been reserved for high-demand periods, such as extended periods of hot weather.

Further, coal, once the fuel of America, came under intense scrutiny from environmental groups and regulatory agencies. Since the Clean Air Act became law in 1970, FirstEnergy and predecessor companies dropped more than $10 billion on environmental protection efforts.

Recently, the stringent  requirements of the EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) were finalized, and after crunching the numbers on what it would take bring the plants into compliance, FirstEnergy officials decided to pull the plug on the coal-fired units that helped power the glory days of Ashtabula County.

Environment Ohio, a statewide environmental advocacy organization, hailed FirstEnergy’s decision, even though it will mean the loss of hundreds of good-paying jobs.

“This year is 2012 — and yet the same coal plants that were powering the first incandescent bulbs are still powering our iPads. It’s high time we began the shift to a cleaner energy future. Today’s announcement by FirstEnergy marks the transition into a new era as utility companies begin to account for the growing cost of outdated fossil fuel technologies,” said Julian Boggs, state policy advocate for Environment Ohio, a statewide, citizen-based environmental advocacy organization.

The group noted that the four Ohio plants being closed by FirstEnergy collectively emitted 443 pounds of mercury into the air in 2010.

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