A hydroelectric plant on the shore of a creek with water rushing into it from a waterfall at Cornell University

After More than a Century, Cornell’s Hydroelectric Plant is Still Humming

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The facility in Fall Creek Gorge contributes a small but significant—and renewable—portion of the University’s power

By Lindsay Lennon

Walking across the Suspension Bridge, you may have spotted a small stone building, tucked way down into the northern side of Fall Creek Gorge. It’s Cornell’s very own hydroelectric plant. And despite its unassuming appearance, it packs a punch—in fact, it generates 3 to 5 percent of the Hill’s electricity each year.

It’s also the oldest component of the University’s ongoing commitment to renewable energy—an effort that also includes solar arrays, Lake Source Cooling, and the proposed Earth Source Heat system.

First, one key fact: the hydroelectric plant is not to be confused with the Hydraulic Laboratory.

That venerable research facility, formerly visible from the Thurston Avenue Bridge, was on Fall Creek Gorge’s south side; it was state of the art when it opened in 1898, but stood empty for decades before collapsing into the gorge in 2009.

The hydro plant is fueled by water from Beebe Lake, which flows through a trash-clearing mechanism and through the intake house, a roofed structure with a wooden gate.

Then it enters a 1,700-foot concrete pipeline (called a “penstock”) plunging 140 feet into the gorge, through the power-producing turbines inside the plant, and back into the creek.

A graphic drawing demonstrating the flow of water through a hydroelectric plant system

Mainly operated remotely, the plant is accessed via 122 steps down into the gorge—rarely, and only by those who hold the keys to the two locked gates bearing “No Trespassing” signs.

Frank Perry, thermal distribution and hydroplant manager (who works in Energy and Sustainability within Facilities and Campus Services), or another staffer comes over from the Humphreys Service Building on the other side of campus to check on it about once a week.

“Usually I stop at the intake and clear some trash off,” says Perry, who also gives tours of the plant to students. “Otherwise, it just runs itself.”

The plant was built in 1904, continuing a tradition of drawing power from Fall Creek—a history with direct links to Ezra Cornell’s early days as an industrious young man eager to seek his fortune.

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Upon settling in Ithaca in 1828, Ezra had found work as a mechanic in a cotton mill which—like many at the time—was powered by water from the surrounding creeks.

The job led to a longstanding business relationship with flour miller Jeremiah Beebe, who enlisted Ezra to build the first stone dam on Beebe Lake.

A large blue hydroelectric power turbine.
The building may be antique, but the turbines are modern. (Jason Koski / Cornell University)

“The summer of 1830 I ... blasted the tunnel through the rock to take water from the dam above the falls for the mill,” Ezra reminisced in 1861. “In 1831 we lowered the tunnel four feet, and built a new dam across the creek.”

As the Sustainability Office notes, the University began investing in hydropower as soon as it opened in 1868, when trustees approved $1,500 for the purchase of a water wheel and pumps.

“There are one or two other universities that have built hydro plants,” Perry observes, “but not on their own campus.”

There are one or two other universities that have built hydro plants, but not on their own campus.

Hydro plant manager Frank Perry

And until the 1940s, he points out, the University was powered solely by the hydro plant and steam-driven generators. But lower energy costs during the advent of nuclear power in the 1960s meant that, by the following decade, it made more financial sense for the University to cease the plant’s operation than to fund its upkeep.

(Additionally, for many years Cornell burned as much as 65,000 tons of coal annually to fire its central energy plant; that ended in 2011, when a combined heat and power plant—another key part of the University’s sustainability initiative—came online.)

A group of energy plant workers examine turbines in a hydroelectric plant
Installing new machinery in 2015. (Jason Koski / Cornell University)

In 1981, in the wake of the energy crisis of the late 1970s, the hydroelectric plant’s interior was completely rebuilt, with two turbines producing up to 6 million kilowatt-hours per year directly into Cornell’s power grid.

It has since had more upgrades, and in 2021—after a five-year recertification process—the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved the facility for another 40 years of clean energy production.

Want to see the plant’s energy output—which is, of course, dependent on the seasonal flow of water—for yourself? You can monitor it online.

Top: Hydro plant photo provided. Infographic by Caitlin Cook / Cornell University.

Published March 24, 2023


  1. David L. Lightner, Class of 1969

    I was at Cornell on 09 November 1965 when an immense power failure blacked out most of the northeastern USA. We got our power back sooner than most places because the people in charge managed to cut the campus off from the grid. We were told afterward that the Fall Creek hydroelectric plant was scheduled for abandonment, but that the plan to decommission it would now be reconsidered.

    • Ann G Martin, Class of 1967

      Yes! Definitely another reason to praise Cornell’ s forward & creative thinking

  2. Peter Davies

    Interesting power production graphs. When power production drops to zero in the winter months is it because of a drought, freezing, or maintenance?

    • Paul M. Kolosso

      Does this electrical energy generation facility comes under regulations of the New York Power Commission?
      Who rakes the intake racks for debris and aquatic creatures i.e. fish that are trapped with the high velocity water flow?
      Who take them home for super fresh fish frys?

      NOTE The generators are of German manufacturing.

  3. Eric Key

    Does the penstock for the Cornell hydro plant run behind Risley and then under Fall Creek Drive?

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