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History of Summerside Electric

Book Cover
The above book was published in November 2021 and
is available to be purchased by contacting
Culture Summerside or City Hall.

The history of electrical generation in the province's second leading city is a proud one, extending back to the last decade of the 19th century. During 1895, a group of concerned Summerside merchants met to discuss the feasibility of establishing an electrical generating plant in the town. Electricity was needed for the thriving young centre. Rapid growth after mid-century had made Summerside the second most populous urban centre on the Island. By the time of its incorporation in 1877, it had also replaced nearby St. Eleanor's as the capital of Prince County. Now, two decades later, the town's citizens were anxious to keep abreast of chang­ing times. A company was formed with its head office in the Town of Summerside, and in 1896, it was incorporated as the Sum­merside Electric Company Limited.

The new company was capitalized at 25,000 dollars, divided into 250 shares of$1O0 each, and further empowered to increase its capital stock to 100,000 dollars. The major shareholders were Robert T. Holman, Neil McKelvie, Neil MacQuarrie, Thomas E. Bishop, Henry B. Stavert, Neil MacLeod, J. Edward Wyatt, . Thomas E. Ramsay, John F. Gillis and the Rev. D. G. Gillis.

The site chosen for the power plant was a lot on the south side of Fitzroy Street, about one hundred feet east of Spring Street. The power house was built of wood, while the floor and ma­chinery bases were of concrete. A very tall brick smoke stack for the boiler marked the plant's location against the Summerside sky.

Source - A. Kenneth Bell - “Getting The Lights” 1989.


During the early 60’s Summerside faced a building boom with a corresponding increase in demand for electrical power. Plant capacity was increased to meet this demand which went from 4,265 kilowatts in 1964 to 11,600 by 1976. At the time the plant could not, by itself, meet the entire demand placed on it. It was through contract agreements with Maritime Electric that most of the town’s excess demand was met. And a lot of the expansion for the department was in the form of transformer equipment to pick power off of Maritime Electric’s Sherbrooke substation.

Growth slowed for Summerside in the early 80’s and peak demand dropped. Since three of the plant’s engines had passed the 40 year mark, and contractual differences with Maritime Electric were on the horizon, town council were faced with three choices. They could either maintain the plant at its present level of output and purchase the extra needed power from Maritime Electric. This, however, presupposed that as the aging equipment got older and had to be taken out of service the lost capacity would have to be purchased from Maritime Electric. If the town had chosen this option then at some time in the future they would be out of the generating side of electricity altogether. Their second option, was then to get out of the generating end and purchase all power from Maritime Electric. And the third option was to increase and upgrade the plant’s capacity, while looking for ways to purchase “economy power,” hopefully from New Brunswick. If the town had any hope of future expansion, (with a corresponding increase in electrical demand), it would have to offer competitive energy costs. With this in mind they chose the third option.


Their choice has a strong historical backing as Summerside had it own electric plant as early as the 1800s. The town’s electric superintendent Bon Baker has made a study of the history of his department. In his research the first reference he found to an electric plant was in 1896 the Summerside Electric Company, started with a capital outlay of $25,000. This figure wouldn’t even make a downpayment on the new generater.


In 1908 the Sun Electric Company took over and this was the firm the town purchased in September of 1920 for the sum of $31,500. At the time the plant was located on Fitzroy Street. Four years later when the town purchased some new equipment the plant was moved to its Harvard Street location and boasted two generators with a combined capacity of 95 kilowatts. Total generation for the year at that time was 236,500 kilowatt hours, (kwh). Customers of the day paid 16 cent per kwh.

By 1928 the plant’s capacity has been expanded to 180 kilowatts. Although the “The Depression” the demand for electrical power continued to grow and by 1935 the peak demand stood at 310 killowatts, with a yearly output of 845,464 kwh.

Just as World War two was starting in 1939 Summerside purchased the lines of the then St Eleanors Electric Company, thus expanding the number of customers they were serving and adding to the peak demand.

The war effort and the anticipated load growth, at the time led to the installation of a 200 killowatt generator in 1940 as the department of National Defence also installed a 250 kilowatt generator in the town’s plant. This generator was later purchased by the town in 1959 from War Assets. Another new generator was also installed that year to replace one which had to be retired.


The addition of this new equipment boosted the plant’s generating capacity to over one million kilowatt hours per year. Their peak demand then stood at 465 kwh. The airport, (CFB Summerside), was connected to the town in 1941 and with meeting their needs and those of its regular customers the plant produced in excess of two million kilowatt hours of electrical power that year. By 1944 Summerside’s electric plant was serving 1,185 customers with a peak demand of 1,080 kilowatts and producing 4.4 million kwh of electrical power annually.

As the war was drawing to a close the department added more rural lines and over the next five years two more generators were installed.

In 1950 the electric department was serving 2,226 customers and producing in excess of 7.5 million kwh of electricity. It was at this point that the town stopped its expansion plans.

In the early 50’s there were a number of small electric plants scattered across the Island. In addition to Summerside there was also the Bedeque Electric Power Company and the Scales Hydro Electric Company located in the immediate area. Another power plant in O’Leary burnt down in the early 1950s, and while asked, the town at the time declined to expand their services to the western part of the county. This, plus the provincial government’s Rural Electrification Program led to Maritime Electric moving into Prince County. Despite Maritime Electric’s supplying the airport with electrical power beginning in 1952, the number of customers being served by Summerside continued to grow. By 1954 there were 2,980 customers receiving electrical power from Summerside giving the utility of peak demand of 2,520 kilowatts and an annual generation output pushing nine million kilowatt hours an generation output which was not to be topped until 1963.

The following year, 1955, marked the first time the town’s utility purchased electrical power. With Maritime Electric taking over the various smaller generation utilities and their lines, Summerside disposed of all their rural lines in 1960.

In the early 60’s the department started expanding again installing its first major underground distribution system and adding to the plant building.

By 1964 the department was supplying 3,320 customers with a peak demand of 4,265 kilowatts. It was also during this year that many of the town’s street lights were changed from incandescent to mercury vapor.


In 1970 the town signed a 10-year contract with Maritime Electric for the purchase of needed power. To facilitate this agreement new tie-in equipment was installed. At the time the town chose Option A of the contract---purchasing a block of power and generating the rest. This option also called for the town to buy any excess power Maritime Electric produced when available.

Times were good in the early 70s and the town enjoyed a building boom including the construction of three shopping malls. This increase in customers pushed up the demand load beyond the capacity of the plant which resulted in the town switching to Option B of their contract  ---- buy all power from Maritime Electric while keeping the plant on standby. By 1973 the town was serving 3,769 customers with a peak demand of 7,600 kwh --- 11 per cent above plant capacity.

Growth continued in the town and by 1975 peak demand had climbed to 11,300 kilowatts.

The entire Island at the time was enjoying growth which led to the construction of the submarine power cable to tap into the mainland power grid. Late in that year the town was asked to run two of its engines to relieve the burden on Maritime Electric’s Borden turbine until the new cable was hooked up. That same year the new service building at the plant was constructed.


While the number of customers the town’s utility was serving continued to climb the peak demand started falling. OPEC nations had pushed the price of oil up which was reflected in people’s electric bills. This resulted in consumers becoming energy-conscious, thus using less power. The result was that the peak demand in 1977 dropped to 11,100 kilowatts, although the number of customers being served climbed by 132.

As the inflation rate soared growth slowed so that by 1980 the peak demand for the town had climbed up to 11,200 kilowatts, 400 short of the all-time high in 1976. Growth all but came to a standstill and by 1980 the recession had set in. With conservation and the recession working hand in hand production at the town’s utility continued to drop with the peak coming down to 10,700 in 1981, and falling still further however, while the town realized production had dropped, they also realized that if the plant was to meet any further demand in future it would need a new generator. So in the summer of 1982 council approved the purchase of the new 4.2 megawatt diesel generator. Williams, Murphy & MacLeod were awarded the site preparation contract valued at $277,000, while Westington Canada Ltd., were awarded the contract for installing an interconnection breaker system to tie in with Maritime Electric at a cost of $75,000. The total cost of the project is $3.65 million.

The new 75-ton, British built generator was purchased from Hawker Siddly Diesel and Electric and installed by Hawker Siddly Projects of Burlington, Ontario. John Farguharson of Hawker Siddly was project manager.

The new generator arrived in Summerside aboard a CN flatbed railcar and there was some concern that because of its tremendous weight there might be some problems moving it to the site. However, Curran & Briggs Ltd., had no problems when they moved the generator in the Spring of 1983. During the installation the town’s department had two of their own people assisting. This served two purposes ---- it allowed for faster installation while giving the employees training in the operation of the new machine.

The first test on the new generator was made in September of 1983 and after a few minor “bugs” were worked out the machine was turned over to the town.

The size of the generator required certain modifications at the plant itself. The cooling pond was renovated to force the water spray higher in the air and a 65,000 gallon fuel storage tank was installed.


Due to the size of the new generator and the fact that the plant is located in the heart of a residential area, a special muffler had to be attached. This 20 – ton muffler, looking more like a water tower than a noise abater, proved its worth. When the generator is in operation the loudest noise comes from the super-charger, not the exhaust. And that’s only noticeable inside the plant itself.

Using its own exhaust gases to increase operating efficiency, the generator’s supercharger gave off a high-pitched whine in1983.

There were two types of fuel, namely used diesel for startups and shutdowns and heavy fuel, (a 70-30 mixture of bunker coil and diesel), for running on load. The generator used 250 gallons an hour of diesel and 240 gallons per hour of heavy fuel.

The new equipment required only 10 minutes to startup with the push of two buttons and with the modern solid-state tie-in equipment the plant could synchronize automatically with Maritime Electric.

Summerside’s Electric Department has 45 miles of distribution lines to look after and over 1,000 street lights. As well they have contracts with the various malls and open parking areas to look after lighting.

Generation and distribution were only part of the duties carried on by the 26 staff members of the department. In addition to be responsible for metre readings, repairs at the plant and to lines, they are also called on by other town departments to make hookups, repairs, etc.

In1983 the department was under the supervision of Don Baker electrical superintendent, assisted by Don Forbes.


 Over the years Summerside’s Electric Department has served the town unfailingly. More than one town council has expressed the opinion that the department is one of the main reasons why the town has been able to offer top quality service while holding the line on taxes. Each year the electrical department generates much needed revenue for the town’s general fund. For example, between 1969 and 1977 the utility transferred $1,865,000 to the town’s general fund.

Investment in the plant is logical from any point of view, but with Islanders suffering the highest energy costs in Canada, any action that can be taken to hold the line has to be applauded, and the Summerside Electric department is exploring all possibilities to keep power rates down in Summerside. 

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