Since electricity was first harnessed, many factories and stately homes began generating power to be used in their buildings. These power plants were small and for the exclusive use of their owners, but this is very different to the electrical infrastructure we are used to today. So, what is the oldest power plant in the world as we would understand it?
The oldest public power plant in the world was located in Godalming, England and was built in 1881. It was short-lived and small, so many consider the Holbrook Viaduct power station in London or the Pearl Street Station in New York City, both from 1882, to be the oldest. The Mechanicville and Jaruga hydroelectric plants are considered the oldest power plants in the world to still be operating.
In the rest of the article, we are going to learn about each of these 5 power plants and look at why they hold historical significance as being among the oldest in the world.
Westbrook Mill at Godalming
The first power plant to service an area with multiple consumers was the hydroelectric power station at Westbrook Mill in the town of Godalming in Surrey, just to the south-west of London. The Godalming power plant was opened in 1881, and it also has the distinction of being the first power plant to use renewable energy.
The power plant used waterwheels to harness the energy of the River Wey and convert it into electricity. This electricity was used in several applications, notably for the new electric streetlights in the town.
Although the river provided free energy, the electrical output from the Westbrook Mill was unreliable. To remedy this, in the same year that it originally opened, the town moved the power plant to a new location and replaced the dynamos and waterwheels with a steam engine.
This power plant stopped operating in 1884.
Holbrook Viaduct in London
The Holbrook Viaduct power station was opened by Thomas Edison in Central London at the very start of 1882, only a few months after its predecessor at Godalming. Unlike that hydroelectric plant, Holbrook used steam turbines and burned coal to power them.
Because of its location in London, Holbrook had a far greater impact on the history of electrification. Not only did it power the electric streetlights in perhaps the most prominent city in the world at the time, but it also provided power to many homes.
Although it lasted longer than the power plant at Godalming, Holbrook also struggled to remain viable and eventually closed down in 1886.
Pearl Street Station in New York City
Very shortly after Holbrook began operations, Thomas Edison returned to the United States and opened the Pearl Street Station in Manhattan. Starting generation in September of 1882, this new power plant was very similar to Holbrook. It burned coal for fuel, which created the steam to run the turbines and generate electricity.
The Pearl Street Station was significantly more successful than Thomas Edison’s earlier effort in London, servicing hundreds of customers and more than ten thousand lights around Manhattan.
Unfortunately, a fire destroyed most of the Pearl Street Station in 1890, giving it a lifespan barely 2 years longer than Holbrook.
Mechanicville Hydroelectric Plant
If you are specifically trying to find out what is the oldest power plant in the world that is also still operating, there are a few candidates for the title, and one of them is the Mechanicville Hydroelectric Plant. This power plant was built in 1897 in Saratoga County and is powered by the Hudson River.
The Mechanicville Hydroelectric Plant lost much of its prominence throughout the latter half of the 20th century as power generation began to be dominated by significantly larger power plants. It was nonetheless saved from demolition and is currently being used to mine cryptocurrency with all of its original Victorian-era machinery.
Jaruga Hydroelectric Power Plant
The last candidate for what is considered the oldest power plant in the world is the Jaruga Hydroelectric Power Plant in Croatia. It began generating electricity in 1895 and is still doing so today, making it the oldest power plant to still be in operation by date of foundation.
The Jaruga Hydroelectric Power Plant has had many refurbishments and upgrades since its construction, including a move to its current site in 1903, which is different to the original site from 1895. Because of this move, some consider 1903 to be its true founding year, making it younger than the Mechanicville Plant.
When asking what is the oldest power plant in the world, we can see that the answer is not so clear cut because there are many ways to qualify the question.
We have learned today about the first 3 public power plants ever built and how each of them claims the title of the oldest as well as the 2 oldest power plants that are still in operation, so whichever way you want to approach the question, you have now got the answer.