The State Line Generating Plant  –  Part 1

The State Line Generating Plant was opened in 1929 as an engineering and architectural marvel. The creation of the plant almost 100 years ago brought the important distribution of energy to meet needs, just as Digital Crossroad Data Center is the current leading data center in the Chicagoland area.

Thomas Edison himself personally directed the design of the generators and power-generating systems, attending many design meetings in the still-standing Archway Building. It was under Edison’s direction that Samuel Insull, then CEO of the newly formed holding company Commonwealth Edison Co. made the commitment to provide the resources to make Hammond Indiana the nation’s premiere power generation site. The architectural design of the State Line Generating Plant was a masterpiece by the legendary architectural firm Graham, Probst Anderson & White, the same firm that designed the Wrigley Building, the Fields Museum, the Shedd Aquarium and the Chicago Civic Opera House.  

In its ranking of the Landmarks of Engineering History, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) has ranked the State Line Generating Plant as its 24th most significant American engineering Landmark. The art-deco style Archway building, which was the entryway into the Plant, became an iconic international symbol of the new ways to generate electricity and was used in advertising campaigns by electric companies throughout the world.  

At the time of its closing in 2012, it was one of the oldest continually serving urban energy generating plants in the world.  The opening of the State Line Power Generating Plant was the culmination of Edison’s vision for mass electricity power distribution. The Graham Probst legendary art deco urban design continues till this day to be a part of this enduring legacy.

Accordingly, the site is perfect for housing today’s most sophisticated data centers. The site was excellent for electricity generation and power distribution about a hundred years ago. Turbines require cooling and Lake Michigan’s water is the perfect coolant.  Power generation requires constant coal deliveries and rail is the best transportation method. 

State Line Generating Plant “25 Years – The World’s Largest Turbine Generator” 

The plant’s Unit 1 generator was the best in the world at the time, producing 208,000 kilowatts of energy, 30% more than the next leading unit. The commissioner of this energy project was Commonwealth Edison, founded in the early 1900’s as an energy utility giant and the incumbent provider of energy in Chicago, Illinois. 

 For over 25 years, the State Line Generating Plant was the world’s largest electricity-producing generator in the world and supplied energy to more than a million homes in Northwest Indiana, Chicagoland area, suburbanites and to rural farmlands. The construction of the State Line Energy plant took place during the electricity boom, from 1921 to 1929 as electrification of homes and businesses was soaring and delivered an economic and industrial period of flourishment to advance the area. Its contributions to Chicago and surrounding communities cannot be denied because they would not have become what they are today without it. 

While the plant allowed for economic growth, it also produced large amounts of pollution, causing damage to the environment and the health of the public. Its decommissioning and demolition in 2012 caused short-term job loss. Consequently, it should not overlook the giant impact the plant had for its age. The site is renewing itself by preparing for new technology and industry to overtake.

Edison’s Construction of a 1920’s Large Electric Power Plant 

State Line Energy began as an idea that came together by putting together Thomas Edison’s power distribution patents and Samuel Insull’s understanding of the increasing need of electricity and energy in northwest Indiana, South Chicago and the region surrounding it. 

The early 1900’s was defined by years of exponential growth in the economy, industry, and energy of the United States. The Roaring 20’s posed new problems, as well as opportunities for the country. There was a new tide of consumerism and a need for electricity. Many more Americans were moving to cities as urbanization grew rapidly during this time, leaving the majority of Americans living in metropolitan areas than on farms. 

Chicago’s urban population grew from 2,701,705 to 3,376,438 from 1920 to 1930 with those people came the demand for expanding the energy network. In hand with the economic boom and rapid growth of industry in the early-to-mid 20’s, Americans had more money in their pockets and new inventions to spend it on. The new lifestyle enjoyed by middle class Americans demanded an increase in the supply of energy and electricity. 

Electrification needed to support growing population and site selection

During the electricity boom, underrepresented communities lagged in access to energy. Around 1.3 million Northwest Indiana and Chicagoland homes needed electricity in the late 1920’s, including rural and working-class neighborhoods. The increasing industrial needs in the city also required more and more electricity output. State Line was a wonder and “champ” for its generation abilities being incomparable to any other plant at the time. 

The need for electricity was evidently present and the State Line Generating Plant was the largest element of the solution to this growing necessity. Commonwealth Edison, at the behest of Thomas Edison, planned, developed, constructed and operated this project, clearly seeing the opportunity present in the energy deficit of the area.

The site’s optimal placement was on the shores of Lake Michigan and its proximity to Chicago, but on Indiana land, made it a great site for construction.  The city and surrounding area needed electricity and the power plant needed a cooling source for its high-capacity generators, making the site in Northwest Indiana on Lake Michigan the picture-perfect solution. 

People and Companies Involved in Early Stages and Plant Commissioning

The foresight of Commonwealth Edison to head the operation of a new, ambitious energy plant is not too surprising, given the company’s founding and history. Commonwealth Edison Co. is the merging of energy utilities by Samuel Insull, with the founding of its parent company by Thomas Edison. Edison established the Western Edison Light Co. in Chicago in 1882, and five years later the company was renamed Chicago Edison Co. 

Another five years later, in 1892, Samuel Insull became the president of Chicago Edison Co (Encyclopedia of Chicago). After assuming the head position at Chicago Edison Co., Insull incorporated another electrical organization, Commonwealth Electric Light & Power Co., into the company in 1897. Insull’s unification of the two companies was not official until 1907, when the well-known name of the company, Commonwealth Edison Co. (ComEd), was finally established. 

The energy plant increased the energy output of ComEd, which already had a large stake in the energy network of the city. ComEd had a franchise with Chicago and its operations served around 500,000 consumers in the area, generating approximately 40 million dollars in annual revenue in the 1920’s. Insull astutely observed the increasing energy needs of industries and consumers in Chicagoland, and commissioned the building of the State Line Energy plant. 

Samuel Insull – Visionary, Entrepreneur and Facilitator of Edison’s Dream

Commonwealth Edison was the dream of Thomas Edison but would not have taken on the construction of this ambitious new power plant if it weren’t for their ingenuous and determined President, Samuel Insull. In 1892, Insull left his position on the executive board at General Electric, founded by Thomas Edison, and joined Chicago Edison, which later became Commonwealth Edison.

Samuel Insull designed and built the modern power grid, consolidating many smaller producers of energy into fewer, larger industrial power producers (History of Electricity, IER). These new industrial power producers made it more economical to have more users. Insull was able to provide electricity to many more customers for a cheaper price, by famously implementing economies of scale. He was also able to expand the main energy network outside city limits, providing rural communities with much-necessary electricity. Insull’s design abilities and ideas for efficiency allowed for fast and low-cost electricity. 

The cost of electricity per kilowatt-hour decreased from 4.5 US dollars in the early 1900’s to about one dollar in 1918. After this time, the price became fairly consistent into the 1930’s and remained quite low; around one USD per kilowatt-hour (IER). Insull knew the commissioning of a new plant like State Line would afford the increased energy output that was much needed in the area and enable more consumers to be serviced at a lower price. Without those efforts many would not be able to receive the necessary power to operate their lives.

Construction of the State Line Generating Plant 

Graham Anderson, Probst and White – Legendary Design Considerations 

ComEd hired the Chicago-based architectural firm, Graham Anderson, Probst & White (GAWP) to design their new State Line Energy plant. The firm had a distinguished legacy in the city, designing or refurbishing many buildings throughout Chicago, to name a few major projects: Civic Opera House, Field Museum, Wrigley Building, Merchandise Mart, and Shedd Aquarium. The company had many operations through 1912 to 1936, including the State Line Energy plant. 

By the 1920’s, the company had moved away from their earlier designs and styles, such as the classical style found in its Beaux-Arts buildings. They decided to create the State Line Energy plant with a newer and sleeker design, Art Deco style. From the book written on the architectural projects taken on by GAWP from 1912 until 1936, the cost of State Line was around 4.65 million dollars to design and construct. 

Many well-known architectural masterpieces were designed using Art Deco style, including the Chrysler Building and Empire State Building in New York City. This artistic style embodied modernity and the qualities of man-made machines within architectural design, by using man-made materials like steel, concrete, and opaque glass, as well as incorporating simple, streamlined geometric figures (Art Deco, Britannica).

Sargent and Lundy – World-Class Engineering Innovations 

Sargent and Lundy formed their engineering consulting firm in 1891, which coincided with the growing business of electricity. The electric power industry and the consulting company have had a close relationship since its inception. 

The first project taken on by the firm was an energy power station, Harrison Street Station, completed in 1892. Which was commissioned by Samuel Insull through the Chicago Edison company. The engineering consulting work of Sargent and Lundy in construction of power stations like the Harrison Street Station and the State Line Energy Plant created reliable energy generation in Chicago and the surrounding communities. Both plants lived up to Samuel Insull’s enthusiastic expectations of energy generation and capacity, affording consumers to receive electricity at a lower price. 

Sargent and Lundy creativity and efficiency reduced the amount of coal needed by half per kWh, which is still used till this day. Their ingenuity for coal consumption innovation procedures contributed to help make the State Line Generating Plant the most innovate design at the time. 

Post-Construction – Benefits to the Community When State Line Goes Online

Around 1.3 million consumer households in the Chicago area were serviced by energy producers in the late 1920’s, with the city having a maximum energy generation capacity of around 1,300 megawatts of power. 

ComEd had a large holding and extensive reach in the city, according to Burnham’s Manual of Chicago Securities. The company essentially had, “a monopoly on electric lighting and power business of Chicago, including the furnishing of all the power required by the elevated and surface railways”. After State Line began its operations, the energy generation capacity of the area increased by more than 15%, to approximately 1,518 megawatts. 

The plant was completed at an peak time to support the electricity boom, Industrial Age, and Great Depression of the 1930’s. Increased electricity access and energy production created more Chicagoland jobs, improved the quality of life for many residents, and bolstered the industrialization and economy of both Illinois and Indiana.  The State Line became a behemoth energy producing and architectural giant for its age. 

Great Depression – Impact of the Economic Downturn

The industrialized world suffered the worst economic downturn in history during the Great Depression, beginning after the stock market crash of 1929. The impact on the economy and everyday life steadily worsened over the next decade, and lasted until the late 1930’s. Every community across the country was facing damaging effects, with large cities like Chicago unable to ward off unemployment, homelessness, and food scarcity. The areas most affected during this time were farmlands and rural regions of the country, and they were in desperate need of electricity. 

The State Line Generating Plant again became a national topic as President Roosevelt acknowledged the energy deficit in these areas, calling to prioritize rural electrification. The Rural Electrification Administration was then created to assist farmers and rural populations to connect to local or nearby power plants (Rural Electrification). This initiative changed the perspective on energy access in the country, as people started to believe it was a right, rather than a commodity, which prompted a substantial national increase in energy generation. 

Chicago was severely impacted by the Great Depression as manufacturing jobs were lost.  The State Line Generating Plant survived through these devastating times, still providing electricity to consumers and jobs to residents in the region. While the plant itself did not see such damaging consequences, Samuel Insull’s ambitious innovation and investing was met with an unpredictable and unforgiving economy. 

Insull corporate and financial methods were controversial and resulted in an indictment for fraud as the late 1920’s businesses used “highly leveraged junk bonds”. While Insull was acquitted, it preceded him to leaving ComEd. Which led to filing for bankruptcy, which financial destroyed him.  Nonetheless, the company and its operations maintained a strong presence in the area, even in the face of worsening economic conditions in the city and the nation. The State Line Generating Plant and ComEd kept operations running throughout the Great Depression, remained strong during World War II, and continued to expand afterwards. 

World War II – Impact of economic prosperity on owners and operation

Not only did the State Line Energy Plant and ComEd survive the Great Depression, but the company and the plant’s operations thrived during and after World War II (WWII). The nation saw a serious revitalization and bounced back from the Great Depression and Northwest Indiana was at the center of steel and wartime materials development.  The Northwest Indiana industrial sector and production were drastically ramped up to keep pace with wartime efforts. 

By 1941, the Great Depression was ending, and the nation focused on industrial output to win the war. This was an extraordinary industrial expansion and economic breakthrough. 17 million new civilian jobs were created, industrial productivity increased by 96 percent, and corporate profits after taxes doubled. Power plants and the energy sector were essential in the industrial process, providing the energy required to maintain the production and manufacturing levels needed to support the U.S. and Allied Powers in WWII. To increase its energy output and further expand as planned, ComEd decided to add another unit to the State Line Energy Plant. 

“Unit 2” was fully operational in 1938, enabling energy production for manufacturing and industry in Chicagoland. Chicago was a main power hub during the war, following only behind Detroit in the value of commodities produced for the war. The economy and quality of life for many Americans improved as a result of increased employment opportunities with industrial production through the duration of the war. At its ending also came the end of the Great Depression and its devastating effects on the nation. 

Post-War Era – Impact of economic prosperity on owners and operation

The end of World War II in 1945 brought about a newly revitalized economy, as well as the closing of the effects of the Great Depression. Economic prosperity continued in the U.S. after WWII, further increasing the quality of life for Americans, expanding the middle class, and consolidating the victorious nation’s power and influence in the global economy. The energy sector continued to grow as more inventions were put out into the market and increased production and population required more electricity. 

The late 1940’s through the early 1960’s saw the baby boom increase the population of the nation by around 76.4 million. After suffering through the Great Depression and war, the newfound economic security of the times prompted young Americans to get married and have children. Middle-class America was growing, producing, and consuming, with optimism for sustained economic stability, which increased the need for energy generation. 

Unit Expansion in 1938, 1955, and 1963

After WWII, ComEd, then a subsidiary of Exelon, was given a 42-year franchise from Chicago and became the largest electric utility in Illinois and is the sole electric provider in Chicago. ComEd added two new units to bulk up its generation capacity. With the War over and the economy up and running again, the company and its plants were in full swing.  

In 1955, only ten years after the war, and seventeen years after its second unit expansion, ComEd ordered the addition of another unit at the State Line Energy plant. This newest unit, Unit 3, had a generation capacity of 197 megawatts up until the plant’s decommissioning in 2012. Another unit expansion, Unit 4, was operational just eight years later, in 1963, with a generation capacity of 318 megawatts. 

The Creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) and the Clean Air Act 

In December 1970 President Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), after increased pressure to form an organizational body to monitor and protect the environment and human health. That same month, Congress passed the Clean Air Act, which allowed the EPA to set and enforce national air quality, auto emission, and anti-pollution standards. The EPA and the later formed Department of Energy, were to regulate and limit aspects of the energy sector, especially the generation of energy from pollution-causing agents like coal. 

Coal-fired power plants like State Line were some of the most affected energy stations under this act, as State Line’s operations continued to release toxic chemicals into the air, such as nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, and toxic mercury, as well as greenhouse gases. The Clean Air Act forced the plant to start shutting down operation of the record-setting Unit 1 and Unit 2 in the late 1970’s. While Units 1 and 2 were closed in the late 1970’s, the remaining units, Units 3 and 4, continued generating energy for decades even while not meeting EPA standards, up until the plant’s closure in 2012. 

2000-2010 – State Line: Environmental Justice and its End of Life

ComEd sold the State Line Power plant to Mirant Corp. in 1997 for $68 million. Just five years later, Mirant sold the plant to Dominion Resources for $128 million. 

The plant had been violating the standards set in the Clean Air Act for some time. The old equipment was not replaced with new machinery that would enable the plant to meet the anti-pollution standards set in the act. By 2010, employment was down to about 100 employees and the threat of closure seemed to be imminent. The owners refused to upgrade the facilities, seeing that the future of coal was in serious question and Dominion Resources decided against retrofitting the State Line Generating Plant with Clean Air Act pollution controls and would instead shut the plant down in the three-year period between 2012-2014. 

The State Line Generating Plant was the largest polluter in the region and the cause of Chicago’s inability to comply with the standards set forth in the Clean Air Act. The old plant was clearly the region’s largest polluter and emitter of carbon dioxide as well as other toxic chemicals and gases. The plant had multiple renovations and expansions over the years, however, in not updating its equipment to meet the health and pollution standards enforced by the EPA, the pollution from the plant directly caused health related diseases and toxic chemical exposure deaths in multiple smaller cities surrounding the plant.

Decommissioning – Basic Facts and Details

When Dominion Resources in 2012 made the corporate decision against complying with the strict EPA coal regulations and against upgrading the equipment necessary to continue operating the facility, the company announced the possibility of closing the plant within two years.  Because of the highly skilled local labor force, the decommissioning occurred much quicker. While the environment and health of the public was better off, the 100 employees who operated the plant were left looking for employment, most near retirement age. Additionally, the city would be missing the tax revenue paid by the plant to the city as, at the time of the decommissioning, the plant was the largest taxpayer of the city’s tax revenue. Therefore, Digital Crossroad Data Center will instill back into the community what they lost years ago. Rising the site from its downfall and taking the incredible innovation into a digital age where the State Line will again be transformative in this time.

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