For a lot of people navigating the I-80 corridor between Truckee and Reno, Farad is a blink-and-you-miss-it exit. But there was a time in history that Farad was a bustling entity, drawing power from the mighty Truckee River and bringing electricity to those downriver in Reno and Sparks.

Before getting into what exactly is “Farad the exit,” we need to answer one question: What is a farad? According to Merriam-Webster, it is “the unit of capacitance equal to the capacitance of a capacitor between whose plates there appears a potential of one volt when it is charged by one coulomb of electricity.” More simply put, it’s a measurement of the ability to hold an electrical charge, making it a name perfectly suited for a powerhouse.

One of four such powerhouses originally owned by the Truckee River General Electric Company, the Farad Powerhouse is nestled between the thunder of cars and trucks traveling on the interstate and the rolling flow of the Truckee River. Along I-80 westbound, drivers can see on the north side of the highway steaming water ambling down roadside rocks. That water feeds a hot spring on the south side of the highway, the home of the former Mystic Hot Spring spa in the 1800s.

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Following the 1859 discovery of the Comstock Lode in Virginia City, the need for electricity at the surrounding mines increased dramatically. The reason was two-fold: Not only were the mines so deep that they required continual pumping to remove groundwater, but they were also plagued with extremely hot conditions. This is because the deeper the mines, the hotter the groundwater, as it was heated by geothermal pockets. Thus, fans were necessary to bring in cooler air for the miners to breathe.

TIP-TOP SHAPE: Eventually, the site became accessible from U.S. Route 40, which wound its way through the Truckee River Canyon until it was replaced in 1964 by Interstate 80. The roof of the Farad facility’s forebay house remains visible from I-80 today.

“In some cases, the air temperature would be 150°F with the water reaching 170°F,” notes a written history by Truckee Donner Historical Society’s Judy DePuy. “Steam-driven Cornish pumps were effective for a while, but the expense of the electricity and drop in value of silver forced mine owners to find cheaper power alternatives.”

Seeking a solution that was more cost effective than coal or wood-powered electricity, the powers that be came together to form the Truckee River General Electric Company. The answer to the power struggle was to harness the force of the Truckee River through the creation of a hydroelectric plant. As the first hydroelectric powerhouse on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada, Farad was constructed in 1899 with the goal of bringing electricity to both Virginia City and the new, smaller city of Reno.

“Mining interests bankrolled the project,” according to a historical account on the NV Energy website. “The Virginia City electric distribution system — Nevada’s first — was one of only a handful nationwide designed by genius inventor Thomas Alva Edison.”

With two turbines and generators, Farad began generating power on Sept. 12, 1900, and was capable of supplying 2,800 kilowatts of electricity to Virginia City and its surrounding mines. Once the Farad powerhouse was in operation, the Truckee River General Electric Company constructed three more hydroelectric stations along the Truckee River south of Farad. According to the Truckee Meadows Water Authority, the Washoe facility was built in 1904, followed by the Fleish plant in 1905 and Verdi in 1911.

On Jan. 1, 1997, a 50-year flood event devastated northern California and western Nevada, washing out the upriver Farad Diversion Dam and rendering the powerhouse inoperable. By then, the collection of powerhouses was owned by Sierra Pacific Power Company (SPPC). According to a California State Water Resources Control Board’s Environmental 2002 Impact Report for an SPPC proposal to replace the Farad Diversion Dam, which washed out during that flood event, the Truckee River crested with a peak flow of approximately 15,000 cubic feet per second.

In 2008, Sierra Pacific Power Company joined forces with Nevada Power to become NV Energy. The possibility of reconstructing the dam was up in the air for years, with the cost of replacement estimated at $19.8 million in 2012. The project was ultimately abandoned, and in 2017 the Truckee Meadows Water Authority acquired the hydroelectric stations from NV Energy. After considering ways of bringing new life to the Farad plant by way of possibilities like recreational and educational opportunities, selling off equipment, and more, the water authority decided in 2018 to put the approximately 111-acre property up for sale.

KEEP OUT: Access to the structures is prohibited, with the site cordoned off by barbed wire and chain-link fencing. If you’d like some insight as to how these hydroelectric plants operate, mark Aug. 21 on your calendar for a public tour hosted by the Truckee Meadows Water Authority. Visit tmwa.com for details.

Kim Boldi, water supply specialist with the Truckee Meadows Water Authority, confirmed to Moonshine Ink that the Farad property sold on Jan. 15, 2020. “We have sold Farad as it was no longer a running hydro plant,” Boldi wrote in an email to Moonshine. “It is now owned by a private party.”

The Nevada County Historical Landmarks Commission referenced the sale of the Farad plant at its meeting on Jan. 19, 2024, while discussing a project to replace Flats Bridge, located near Farad along I-80 between Floriston and Mystic. The commission noted that Farad was sold to an “unnamed individual from Texas,” identified by Boldi as William Black. According to the meeting minutes, Caltrans is “in possession of sufficient documentation” — including an April 24, 2002, letter from the California State Office of Historic Preservation — concurring with a Federal Highway Administration determination that the Farad hydroelectric facility is eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. At this time, the landmark commission is unaware of the new owner’s intentions for the property. Moonshine was unsuccessful in obtaining contact information for Black.

While the Farad powerhouse is no longer, the structures remain. Encased by chain-link fencing and barbed wire, the timeworn buildings and flumes stand proudly along the riverbank. Prior to its sale, the Tahoe-Pyramid Trail in 2019 obtained from the Truckee Meadows Water Authority a permanent easement that allows the trail to continue to pass through the site in perpetuity. Downriver, the water authority’s three remaining facilities continue to produce energy today. The combined energy of the hydroelectric plants produces an average of 6.7 megawatts of power, enough for approximately 3,500 households.

Author

  • Juliana Demarest

    Juliana Demarest is a Jersey girl with ink in her blood. She fell in love with print journalism at a young age in the '80s when her Uncle Tony would take her to "work" at his weekly paper. In 1997, she co-founded a weekly newspaper in North Jersey. One day, she went to photograph a local farmer for a news story. She ended up marrying him and leaving journalism to become a farmer's wife. In 2010, they packed up their two children and headed to Truckee in pursuit of the outdoor life. She didn't realize just how much she missed journalism until she joined Moonshine in 2018 after taking time off to be mom. Connect with Juliana juliana@moonshineink.com

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