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A Look Inside One of Kern County's Historic Hydro Facilities

The Kern Canyon Powerhouse was originally built in 1921. One hundred years later, new owners were working to restore it to a functional state.
Posted at 11:52 AM, Apr 24, 2024

Join 23ABC on a tour of one of the oldest power plants in Kern County.

  • Ted Sorenson is an engineer who, along with his team, helped restore a century-old powerhouse back to a functional state.
  • The facility was originally built in 1921 and was operational until 2017 when it suffered damage from a rockslide.
  • The facility can produce up to 11.5 megawatts of electricity when the river is full enough to divert the full 600 CFS.

BROADCAST TRANSCRIPT:
“My work is my hobby and my hobby is my work. I love hydropower, I love to be able to take these older plants and put them back together,” said Ted Sorenson, an engineer who has worked in hydropower for 40 years.

In 2020, his company bought the Kern Canyon Hydro facility.

“We spent millions of dollars and two years of hard work putting it back together.”

The power plant was originally built in 1921 and was owned and operated by PG&E.

However, it was damaged in 2017 by a rockslide that shut down operations at the facility. In a statement, PG&E said it no longer made economic sense for the company to keep operating it, and they started looking for a buyer.

“Small hydropower plants, in my opinion, are a better fit for a small business, and we are a small business.”

Sorenson is passionate about hydropower, his company has designed and built hydroelectric power plants and he says it currently owns and manages 28 small hydropower plants.

“It’s our specialty.”

“That’s 15,000 horsepower going right now,” Sorenson said motioning to a rapidly spinning turbine.

Sorenson told me the powerplant diverts up to 600 CFS of water when it is available, and can create up to around 11 megawatts of power.

“Right now it’s producing enough energy for three to four thousand homes.”

It’s a run-of-the-river facility. Water is diverted from the river upstream and then travels down a tunnel in the mountains using gravity before going down pipes at a steep incline and into the facility.

“The vertical difference between where it comes out of the tunnels and turbine and the river is 250 feet,” Sorenson said, “It’s how many buckets of water times your vertical drop is how much power you get.”

They upgraded the water wheel in the turbine, the part that the water rushes through and spins.

“Like you blow a pinwheel at the county fair.”

Sorenson said the new wheel cost upwards of 500,000 dollars, and the old one had been in use since the facility opened 1921.

“New design, more efficient design, so for the same amount of water, we get fifteen percent more energy.”

The old wheel is still on the property.

“Yard art, it's for us, we like this.”

“Sometimes when there is a huge waterfall spurting out is that related to this?” I asked Sorenson.

“It is, it’s called the Mouth of the Kern to the locals. To us it’s called our bypass valve,” Sorenson explained, “We have a four-mile tunnel, which you can think of as a four-mile freight train moving down the mountain. When we go offline we can’t put it through the turbine anymore, so therefore we open the bypass valve and let the water off and it comes down the side of the hill.”

Many of the building's windows have been painted over.

“Those windows were painted over in 1942,” Sorenson explained, “Pearl Harbor, there was a blackout on the west coast, afraid the Japanese were gonna bomb.”

Sorenson said he believes hydroelectric power has played an important role in clean energy in the U.S. and will continue to in the future.

Sorenson told me there had been a hydroelectric facility at that location in 1890 before it was rebuilt in 1921.

“It’s been a part of supplying energy to this area for well over 130 years, so we hope to take care of it, be good stewards of it, and have it run another 130 years.”


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