History of Bonneville Power Administration

Bonneville Dam

Postcard of Bonneville Dam, viewed from the Washington side.  Ca.1945

The idea of the Bonneville Power Administration began as early as the 1920s and President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s, a time when the production and distribution of electricity was controlled by private utilities.  In many instances, urban areas were fully electrified and adjacent rural areas were without power because utilities discovered that it was too expensive to run electrical poles and wires to rural areas.  A champion of rural electrification, President Roosevelt envisioned power flowing to rural locations, such as farms, where it could be provided as the same cost as urban areas. 

When serving as Governor of New York in the 1920s, Franklin Roosevelt promoted hydropower; as a 1932 presidential candidate, and later as president, he encouraged large, federally-funded hydroelectric developments in several river basins.   

Bonneville Dam

View of Bonneville Dam viewed from the summit of Hamilton Mountain.  Date unknown.

Following the creation of the National Resources Planning Board a year prior, in 1934, regional planning commissions were established to investigate comprehensive river basin planning.  The Pacific Northwest Regional Planning Commission, having a representative from Oregon, Montana, Idaho, and Washington, made out a report in late December of 1935 suggesting that an independent federal agency be created to market power from Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams.  Modeled after the Panama Canal Company, the agency would operate the generators and transmission lines.  The commission also recommended that power be sold for generation cost, opposed to market rate, and public utilities supply the federal power. 

Construction began on Bonneville Dam and Grand Coulee Dam in 1933; Bonneville was completed in 1938, Grand Coulee in 1941. 

Consisting of the Commission’s key recommendations, Congress approved the Bonneville Project Act, and Roosevelt signed it into law on August 20, 1937.  The act stated that this new power agency could “market and transmit power from federal dams and . . . give preference and priority in the use of electrical energy to public bodies and cooperatives.”  In 1940, the Bonneville Power Project was renamed the Bonneville Power Administration. 

History of Bonneville Power Administration
History of Bonneville Power Administration