At the end of the 19th century, an old wooden turbine was used to create the Besalú power station at the mouth of the El Fluvià canal. During the day the electricity generated was charged in batteries and at night the electricity generated by the power plant and the batteries were used to serve the few subscribers in the village.
In those days there were no meters in the houses to control domestic consumption, but the control was done with limiters, popularly known as “beetles” because they were black, which were set off if someone lit a light bulb more that he had contracted.
In 1928, a new canal was built, the Gros canal, above the existing one, to increase the waterfall of the power plant and increase electricity production. To this end, a metal Pelton turbine was installed, which substantially improved the quality of service.
The plant ceased operations in 2010
A hydroelectric power station is, in essence, the evolution of the old watermills with which energy was generated to grind grain or other products, and later, to generate electricity.
The operation of a power plant is very simple, it consists of converting the potential energy that a body of water has, as a result of a drop in level, into electricity. In the descent between the two levels, the water enters a hydraulic turbine, which transforms the potential energy into mechanical energy through the movement of the turbine, and this mechanical energy is transformed into electricity thanks to the alternators.
The first hydroelectric power plant was built in 1880 in Northumberland, Great Britain. Two years later, in 1882, the Appleton plant (Wisconsin, USA), owned by H. J. Rogers, generated a power of 12.5 kilowatts, which were used to illuminate two buildings of the paper mill and the private house of Rogers. In 2020, the large Itaipu power plant, located on the border between Paraguay and Brazil, reached a cumulative production of 50 million megawatt-hours.
During the second half of the 19th century, the areas of Catalonia where rivers flow witnessed the emergence of hydroelectric energy. The industrial revolution and the needs of this type of energy favoured the installation of a good number of small hydraulic power plants that took advantage of the power of the water to satisfy the local needs, basically of public lighting or where there were factories, often located next to the rivers or watercourses close to the towns or on the rivers of the areas with a strong industrial base, like the Llobregat, the Cardener, the Ter, the Freser or the Fluvià. At that time, electricity had to be generated very close to the consumption centres because direct current technology did not allow it to be transported over long distances.
The use of water flows to harness their strength in mills, sawmills or forges has been a common practice for many centuries. However, at the end of the 19th century, the incorporation of the electric generator into the hydraulic turbine meant the possibility of obtaining an affordable and cheap energy source.
There are two different types of these small hydraulic power plants: those that divert water from the river through a channel that carries it to the turbine (which generates electricity) and then returns it to the river, and those that can be considered mini power plants, where the water comes out of a small reservoir, with the turbine installed at the end of a pipe.
Some of the power stations built at the end of the 19th century were built following the architectural trends of the time, that is, Modernism and Noucentisme, and today they represent true architectural gems in the country’s industrial heritage.
The Berenguer hydroelectric power station in Bescanó is a clear example of this. It was inaugurated in 1917 and is the work of the architect Joan Roca i Pinet (1885-1973). The waterfall incorporates a jungle of modernist sculptures of plants and dragons that can be seen from the road.
Also notable are the Vilanna Power Station, built in the Noucentist style in 1905 by Joan Roca i Pinet; the Molí de Queralbs power station, built in 1914 by the Mines Gironès & Henrich company; the Rialb Power Station, a building with modernist features and a Catalan vaulted ceiling, built by the Echer Wyss i Cia company, or the Estebanell Power Station, in Sant Pau de Segúries, built in 1870 with modernist decoration inside.
The landscape of Catalonia has been strongly shaped by the construction of hydroelectric power stations along the river courses.
The construction of reservoirs and dams has flooded fertile valleys, narrowed watercourses and caused the sediments carried by rivers to become trapped and not arrive at the amount necessary to maintain the Ebro or Llobregat river deltas.
The courses of the rivers have been changed with numerous dams that reduce the flows of water, a fact that entails the alteration of the fluvial habitats and puts the survival of many species in danger.
But this same alteration of the landscape has also given rise to a new source of wealth with the touristic use of these reservoirs and rivers.