Shaver Lake museum adds century-old, working hydroelectric generator

The Fresno BeeJune 21, 2013 

— A new exhibit at the Museum of the Central Sierra really puts a charge into the area's hydroelectric history.

Creating the buzz is a more than 100-year-old generating unit inside a replica powerhouse near the main museum.

This isn't some rusty artifact, however. Flip a couple switches, and the unit whirs to life.

Water from an on-site reservoir gets pumped in through a special nozzle. Spray it hard enough, and the force turns a Pelton wheel, which is connected to a magnetic coil generator. As a loud hum reverberates around the cement-walled room, instrument gauges on a nearby panel spring up.

Congratulations, you've just witnessed hydraulic energy being converted to electricity.

Redinger Powerhouse No. 1 will be dedicated Saturday at 4 p.m. Before that, start-up demonstrations are scheduled every half-hour from 1 to 3. Both are free and open to the public.

Inasmuch as Shaver Lake (as well as Huntington, Edison, Florence and Mammoth Pool) wouldn't exist without hydroelectric power, an exhibit that demonstrates the process so vividly seems a natural fit for the museum. Turns out it's also extremely rare.

"It's a tremendous addition because it's so, so unique," said John Mount, chairman of the Central Sierra Historical Society.

"In fact, it's going to be a major turning point for the museum in terms of interest and draw that we have one of the only, if not the only, operating generator units in the world. When word gets out, people are going to come from all over."

The generating unit and the building that houses it are a gift to the historical society from Carver Mead, a world-renowned computer scientist and Silicon Valley pioneer who grew up in Big Creek.

The son of a Southern California Edison powerhouse operator, Mead managed to convince his father's former employer to donate an old generating unit, taken out of service in 1992, from one of its hydro operations on Mill Creek in San Bernardino County.

"This is something I've wanted to do for a long time," said Mead, a Cal Tech professor emeritus of electrical engineering.

It took five years for the donation to clear federal regulatory hurdles, more than enough time to construct the replica powerhouse. Modeled after the original powerhouse in Big Creek, it's named in honor of David Redinger, superintendent of the Big Creek Hydroelectric Project from 1912-47.

Refurbished and freshly painted, the 25,000-pound unit arrived at the museum last fall in the flatbed of a semi truck. Its components had to be lifted into the building by crane, and volunteers spent months on installation.

"For a bunch of us kids that were raised here, the powerhouse was incredible inspiration," Mead said. "We went off and did engineering for a living and taught and all that stuff.

"But once you're retired, you really want the next generation to have that experience. Because it changed our lives, totally. So that's how we got inspired to do this. We're hoping to teach kids where electrical energy comes from."

But in the days before the dedication, two retired professors -- Mead and Russ Westmann, another Big Creek kid who went on to teach in UCLA's aerospace and mechanical engineering department -- were getting the most enjoyment out of it.

"You can tell the difference between men and boys by the size of their toys," Westmann said.

If you go

What: Redinger Powerhouse No. 1 grand opening and dedication. Free and open to the public.

Saturday: Exhibit sponsor Carver Mead will lead generator demonstrations every half-hour from 1 to 3 p.m. The dedication is from 4-5:30.

Where: Museum of the Central Sierra, 42642 Tollhouse Road, Shaver Lake (Just inside the turnoff to Camp Edison.) The museum, built in 2007, is open seven days a week during the summer from 11 a.m to 3 p.m.

Details: sierrahistorical.org or (559) 841-4478

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6218 or marekw@fresnobee.com.

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