During his century of experiences, BPA retiree Ev Harrington has watched firsthand the growth of the Northwest power grid. He spent his early days, post World War II, as a BPA engineer strengthening the integrity of transmission lines. Harrington helped the agency pioneer direct current technology moving power long distances, and testing novel ideas to improve the reliability of the BPA transmission system.
Harrington, who turned 100 in February, considers his time at BPA a model period when risk and innovation went hand in hand. The agency gave him ample opportunities to experiment using the transmission system, which sometimes resulted in technical breakthroughs and once inadvertently sent a whole town's set of telephones ringing.
"Ev was intensely interested in the behavior of the electrical transmission system and the tests that would help us understand how to improve its performance," recalls Ralph Gens, retired BPA chief engineer. "He saw the system as a big laboratory."
Harrington spent the bulk of his career juggling system testing and researching alternating current and direct current for an interconnection between the Pacific Northwest and Pacific Southwest.
After the war, the demand for electricity from aluminum plants decreased significantly, and the resulting surplus of electricity gave BPA a reason to sell outside the region. One option was to sell and transmit power to Southern California. But, to connect the two regions would require system improvements on both ends.
A proposed 850-mile line would carry enough power to serve five San Franciscos and conserve two million barrels of fuel oil used in California each year. But developing an interconnection using the standard transmission technology was pricey. In the 1960s, Harrington looked for a better option.
He turned to engineers at the Swedish company ASEA - known today as Asea Brown Boveri - the world leader in high voltage direct current technology at that time.
By 1960, ASEA had proven DC high voltage technology was practical under real conditions with transmission lines connecting several locations in Europe. During his visit to Sweden in 1965, Harrington also found that DC lines were cheaper for long transmission distances than using AC, giving BPA a business case for federal funding.
"Ev became heavily involved in this effort to develop requirements for the expansion of transmission lines and substations," says retired BPA engineer Stig Annestrand, who at the time worked for ASEA. "He played a key role in defining the proposed line's technical requirements, including testing of the substation equipment."
Harrington brought back from Europe more than DC research. Harrington instigated Annestrand's recruitment to BPA. "I was quite impressed by BPA from the first moment," explains Annestrand. "BPA's willingness to look into new areas - that's what Harrington did. BPA took risks and learned a lot by it."
The agency's feasibility studies led to the DC transmission line, along with three 500-kV AC transmission lines that run from Oregon to California. Collectively, the lines became known as the Pacific Northwest Pacific Southwest Intertie, now commonly referred to as the West Coast Intertie. Worldwide recognition came for BPA in 1970 for the 800-kilovolt high voltage direct current line, which spanned 846 miles from Oregon to Los Angeles through Nevada. In the 1970s, it was the longest distance and highest voltage DC line in the United States.
Experiments along the Grand Coulee line
Other than a three-year stint in the Navy, Harrington was engaged in researching and testing transmission lines from 1939 to 1972. But not all of his experiences were as successful as his work leading up to construction of the West Coast Intertie. The 1934 Oregon State College of Engineering alumnus remembers several tests that had electrifying results.
At one time, BPA was in the process of purchasing circuit breakers but manufacturers couldn't test the equipment. So Harrington offered to perform the acceptance tests of the breakers using a 230 kV line near Grand Coulee, Wash.
"When we pushed the button and did the testing, the current was so high the ground went up and power went through the telephone lines – at three o'clock in the morning – ringing everyone's telephone," laughs Harrington.
The night shifts resulted in commotion repeatedly, some activity unplanned like ringing telephones, and some activity unsolved like the mystery blast.
"Another time," he exclaims, "I was sleeping in a trailer at Grande Coulee and I heard something that sounded like a cannon. I ran from the dam with a gun and thought, what now? When it died down I forgot to call off the fire department and they came with sirens blasting," says Harrington, scrunching his face. "It was always something."
An engineer's legacy
Harrington's personal legacy is the design of a trailer that was originally created to help manufacturers test their equipment on BPA power lines.
"The Mobile Test Trailer took some gigging around to use – it was one of my headaches," Harrington jokes. "Yeah, that was my baby."
His colleagues took the concept and made it a reality. For decades, the trailer design has been used to assist in transmission testing. Just this February, for example, it was used in a series of fault testing to re-commission the Bake Oven Substation in The Dalles, Ore.
Following his retirement from BPA in 1972, Harrington spent several years as a technical expert in legal trials involving electricity-related accidents.
In 1975, Harrington was recognized by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers for his "contributions in the application of high-voltage power circuit breakers, high-voltage series and shunt capacitors, and high-voltage direct-current transmission technology." As a member of IEEE, he served as vice chair and chair of the institute's power circuit committee. Harrington also received a Distinguished Service Award and a Gratitude Award from the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Now, in his 100th year of life, Harrington says he's happy taking it easy with colleagues – now long-time friends - recalling the good old days.