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Ruskin Dam and Powerhouse offers a living snapshot of B.C. history

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Imagine a mechanic fixing the brakes on your car while you're driving it. That's challenging enough, but now imagine your car was made in 1930. It sounds far-fetched, but from an engineering perspective, it's a decent analogy to the upgrades going on at the Ruskin Dam and Powerhouse near Mission.

Built in 1930, this aging powerhouse on the Stave River is being upgraded and maintained to produce power for future generations, all while continuing to generate electricity.

Construction started in April 2012, and the first stage of construction is almost 50 per cent complete, with three subsequent stages planned over the next six years:

  • Reinforcement of the right bank (50 per cent complete);
  • Seismic upgrade of the dam and water intakes;
  • Powerhouse upgrades; and,
  • Relocation of the switchyard.

Powerhouse has been going strong for over 80 years

Power has been flowing from the Ruskin powerhouse since it first went into service over 80 years ago. When it was completed, it stood as an example of the most modern hydroelectric engineering principles in the world. It was constructed when talking pictures were first introduced. Today, it's still helping to power Mission (including a 12-screen cinema complex and its talking pictures).

The last major upgrade to the powerhouse took place in 1950 when a third generating unit was added. Since then, while the area around it has been growing, the Ruskin facility has been steadily ticking along, providing reliable power from the generators for the past 82 years.

When the powerhouse was built, the population of the original Mission townsite was around 1,000 people. Today, the District of Mission has grown to a population of over 37,000. It's time for the Ruskin powerhouse to catch up to its modern surroundings.

Increasing seismic stability behind a heritage façade

Why the upgrade? Well, like most things from the silent film era, the facility isn't built to modern standards. Judy Dobrowolski, a stakeholder engagement advisor with the project, explains that equipment within the powerhouse is in poor condition and is increasingly unreliable. Plus, it's vulnerable to earthquakes.

"What we're doing is seismically upgrading the structure and replacing the equipment with the latest technology, while keeping the heritage building intact," she says. When the project is finished, the powerhouse will have a heritage façade across the entire face of the building, and today's modern electrical equipment inside.

Improving seismic stability is an important driver for the project. As part of a rigorous dam safety program across BC Hydro, the Ruskin Dam needs to be brought up to modern-day requirements and safety standards.

"The dam was built more than 80 years ago," Dobrowolski says. "As you can probably imagine, today we understand a lot more about how dams perform every day and during emergencies like earthquakes."

Upgrading the facility offers the security of modern safety standards; the new Ruskin Dam will be designed to withstand a 1-in-10,000 year earthquake.

The upgrades mean environmental improvements too. More reliable water flow to the lower Stave River will benefit fish, including up to 200,000 spawning chum salmon in peak years.

A powerhouse goes Power Smart

It's not just the equipment that's getting a facelift. The project will also breathe new energy-efficient life into the heritage building with the installation of Power Smart windows and lighting. That means the facility will be saving energy while it's generating energy. All told, the upgraded Ruskin will generate around 379 gigawatt hours of energy per year, enough to power over 30,000 homes.

Bringing history home to the Stave Falls museum

There aren't too many pieces of British Columbia's electrical system that are still standing from the 1930s, let alone still generating electricity. So it's with a watchful eye and a plan for future generations that selected pieces of the aging equipment are being moved out of the Ruskin powerhouse and into the museum at the Stave Falls Visitor Centre.

Visitors have the chance to see hydroelectric history firsthand and hear about the importance of the Stave River system for powering the Lower Mainland.