Public Utilities History
The City of Vernon got into the power business when John Leonis, the flamboyant and popular mayor of this small community, decided to convert Vernon from a sleepy suburb into a major manufacturing district. In early 1932, Leonis approached Edison’s President Russell H. Ballard about the possibility of introducing a special power rate for manufacturing companies that relocated to Vernon. Due in part to the deepening depression, as well as an understandable aversion to “special favor rates,” Ballard refused Leonis’ request. This denial was perhaps not rendered as diplomatically as it could have been prompting the angered Leonis to hastily depart vowing to start his own power system.
True to the Mayor’s word, the City of Vernon quickly sold bonds and issued contracts in 1932 to construct a power plant and distribution system. In a significant departure for the time, the power station was to house five 7500-killowatt generators driven by huge diesel engines. Never had such a large power system relied exclusively upon diesel generation with the expectation that the energy produced would be cheaper than that of commercially operated utility systems. The distribution system was operated at the unusual line pressure of 6,600 volts. This was considered to be the highest line voltage that could be worked “hot”, by men wearing insulated gloves. Those lines supplied energy directly from the power plant to customers, thus saving the expense of a separate transmission network. Despite these non-standard aspects, Vernon’s system was successful, in fact, so successful that demand began to soar in 1933 as the manufacturing located in Vernon began to shrug off the affects of the depression. Soon, the five engines ran constantly to meet the demand, leaving little margin for emergencies or scheduled repairs. After four years of increasingly strenuous operation, the City of Vernon decided to lease the system back to the Edison Company.
Vernon Diesel Generating Plant
Although small diesel engines had been used since World War I to generate electricity in private plants and very small commercial systems, the decision by the City of Vernon in 1932 to rely exclusively upon that technology for their new municipal power system was considered daring. Carl Heinze, the engineer responsible for this brave decision, believed that two factors would enable diesel generated electricity to be cost competitive. First, diesel fuel then cost only 6 cents per gallon, and secondly, the big slow-speed machines he had in mind would prove very economical in terms of fuel consumption. The diesel engines chosen as prime movers for the Vernon plant were giant, double-acting, two-cycle, eight cylinder, solid-injection types operating at 167 revolutions per minute. Built by the Hamilton Machine Works in Ohio, under a manufacturing license from Masheinenfabrik Augsburg-Nuremburg of Germany, the engines were identical to those used in Germany’s famous “pocket battleships” built in the inter-war era. In fact, some of the precision-machined parts, including the massive 45-ton crankshaft forgings, were made in Germany.
The engines began running in June of 1933 and operated almost continuously for four years. At that time, it became the largest diesel power plant, while housing the largest diesel engines built in the country. Each of the 5 engines made 8,000 horsepower and produced approximately 4.5 megawatts respectively. After Edison leased the Vernon system in 1937, the diesels then ran periodically and were able to be taken out of service for maintenance thanks to back-up power available from other Edison power plants.
Made obsolete by more modern post-war generating plants, the Vernon diesels were used less and less. Age, rising fuel costs and air quality regulations all caught up with the plant until it was used only for emergencies. During a series of very hot summer days in August of 1972, the plant was used to help meet a record peak demand on the Edison system, but not long afterwards, the plant retired with a sentimental ceremony.
This, however, did not signal the end of the diesels’ run. The City of Vernon decided to give the plant one more chance to operate. After extensive overhauling by the city, Unit 5 came back to life in 1982. It was the first of five units slated for overhaul by the City. By 1984, all 5 units had been overhauled and were producing power as peaking units in times of high demand running between 4 and 6 hours daily when needed. Operation continued in this manner through the mid 1990’s when the units became cost prohibitive as a result of energy deregulation legislation.
Malburg Generating Station
In October 2005, the City of Vernon completed construction of a 134-MegaWatt gas turbine power plant. Since the Malburg Generating Station can only supply about 65% of the peak demand, the electric utility imports power from several other sources to serve the City’s peak load. In 2006, the system provided a maximum of 195,930 kilowatts and of 1,146,000,000 kilowatt hours. The Vernon Gas & Electric electrical rates are consistently some of the lowest in the state and provide a significant cost saving to industrial users that call Vernon home.