History of Washington Electric Utilities

At the beginning of the Twentieth Century, gas lamps lit Washington's streets at night. Homes relied on candles or gas or kerosene lamps for evening lighting.

Meanwhile people living in large cities enjoyed brighter, cleaner and more convenient electric lighting in their homes. Washington residents who had traveled to New York and other large cities had observed for themselves the benefits of electric lighting and wanted the same advantages here at home.

In the early 1900s, however, privately-owned electric companies found it most profitable to serve densely populated areas. Private utilities were not interested in extending power lines to Washington or other communities in sparsely-populated eastern North Carolina.

The solution for many towns in rural areas was to build their own electric systems, complete with power generating plants and distribution lines. Other towns in North Carolina already had done so as early as the late 1880s.
On May 8, 1903, the citizens of Washington overwhelmingly endorsed construction of an electric system. Eighty-six percent of those eligible to vote passed a $12,500 bond referendum by 406 to 1. When the $12,500 was determined to be inadequate, the city aldermen approved financing an additional $15,000 to cover the total cost of the project: $27,500. The Board of Aldermen that day deemed "an Electric Lighting System is an absolute necessity to the convenience and safety of the citizens and to the preservation of the good order and peace, and progress of said city," according to the meeting minutes.

Construction of the city's first power plant was completed in January 1905 on the north side of West Third Street, 300 feet east of Bridge Street. The plant relied on coal-fired boilers to make steam to drive reciprocating steam engines equipped with large flywheels. These engines were connected to electric generators. Electricity was sent out along the lines to the city's electric customers.

Lights were first turned on to Washington's customers on January 19, 1905. The local newspaper, the Washington Progress, marked the occasion with these comments in the January 26, 1905 edition: "Washington has an electric light plant that is one of the finest in the state. The lights were turned on for the first time Thursday evening of last week and they were all that could be desired. There is no city in the state that is better lighted and our people are to be congratulated upon such an up-to-date plant which is owned by the city. It is known as a double plant and in case one dynamo gets out of order the other can be put in service immediately. We congratulate the Board of City Alderman on the success of the plant."

In these early days the power plant produced electricity primarily for residential or street lighting. Demand was so low that the power plant would shut down on most Sundays.

The city's first electric rate, adopted Dec. 5, 1904, was a monthly flat rate based on the number of lights a customer had in his home or business. Residential customers were charged $2 a month and commercial customers $2.85 if they had four lights. The rate was lower if the customer had fewer lights. Usage for any additional lights was billed at a rate of 11 1/2 cents per kilowatt hour - 2 cents more than the city's average rate today.

In those early days, the city sold light bulbs to customers and would replace all burned out bulbs free of charge, as long as the customer presented an unbroken burned-out bulb at City Hall.

Around 1914, electricity usage had increased to the point that additional generating capacity was needed. The city constructed a new power plant at the end of West Third Street. This coal-fired plant used steam turbine generators to produce all the electricity needed to serve the Washington area and beyond.

The City of Washington played an active role in providing electricity to neighboring communities who were also remote from private power companies. At one time Aurora, Chocowinity, and Grimesland were Washington electric customers. Aurora and Chocowinity's service was sold to Carolina Power and Light. Greenville Utilities Commission purchased the Grimesland service in the 1950s and later sold it to CP&L.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s the city sought additional resources to meet its customers' growing demand for electricity. The aging city power plant was becoming hard-pressed to provide reliable service. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, numerous and unpredictable outages plagued the electric system. Worn-out and leaky boilers provided sporadic steam generation. When electric demand exceeded the plant's capacity to produce, the city had to open circuits to relieve the load on the electric system. Houses and businesses served by those circuits would be plunged into darkness. Clearly, a more reliable source of electricity was needed.

The answer would be to purchase power produced by a private utility at wholesale rates for distribution to the city's electric customers. The city established a power service interconnection with VEPCO in 1953. CP&L had been approached during negotiations with potential suppliers, but the company lacked the facilities in this area in the 1950s to meet Washington's requirements.

After interconnecting with VEPCO the city continued to operate its power plant for several years. Eventually the power plant was phased out for regular use as a power supply, although it was maintained as an emergency stand-by power source until the early 1960s. The city explored using its power plant to generate supplemental power during high demand periods during the 1950s and 1960s, but such a project was found to be unfeasible during the late 50s and 60s.
In 1982, the City of Washington joined the North Carolina Eastern Municipal Power Agency - NCEMPA. This organization of municipal-owned electric systems in eastern North Carolina holds ownership interests in generating plants on the CP&L system. In December 1983 the city switched its interconnection to CP&L's transmission lines in order to purchase wholesale power through NCEMPA.

The abandoned power plant fell into disrepair and was demolished by the city in 1992. A new Utilities Operations Center opened in 1994 on Plymouth Street in front of the old power plant site. The Operations Center houses telecommunications, monitoring system and other resources to provide round-the-clock support for the city's electric, water and sewer systems.

Today the city's electric system is known as Washington Electric Utilities and serves approximately 13,000 customers. Its service area encompasses much of the Washington area north of the river, including Washington Park, Bath, Pinetown and Terra Ceia, and extends into portions of Martin and Pitt counties. The distribution system contains 388 miles of lines. Operating budget is $24 million annually, of which $17 million represents power costs.

--from Washington Electric Utilities files. Revised December 2004