A Tradition of Renewable Energy

This article first appeared as a blog entry by Zach Schierl and Renee Rusler, October 4, 2011.

October is National Energy Awareness Month. Energy awareness, energy conservation, and energy production is an ongoing effort at Whitman Mission National Historic Site and were important issues at the mission during the Whitmans' time.

several plaques and awards line the wall
Environmental awards line the wall leading into the park's auditorium.

NPS - Renee Rusler

Governor's Award for Pollution Prevention and Sustainable Practices from Washington State, 2007

NPS - Renee RUsler

Whitman Mission National Historic Site has won numerous awards for its efforts to reduce its environmental footprint, in part through the use of renewable forms of energy. This may sound new and exciting, but it is actually part of a continuing legacy. The Whitmans and Cayuse were using renewable forms of energy long before it was "hip" to be green.

In the simplest terms, renewable energy is any form of energy that we either have an infinite (or near infinite) supply of, or one that is naturally replenished on short time scales. Solar and wind power are considered renewable energy because we will never run out of them (at least not for another 5 billion years in the case of the Sun!). Burning biomass (things like wood, etc.) for energy is also considered a form of renewable energy since trees can be replenished on human time scales. Conversely, while coal and other fossil fuels do replenish themselves eventually, the formation of these resources takes tens of millions of years and is thus not considered a renewable form of energy.

Finding ways to take advantage of underutilized forms of renewable energy has been the rage for the past few decades. Wind generated power is becoming increasingly prevelant in this area. Standing on the hill beside the Whitman Memorial shaft, one can see several hundred wind turbines lining the hills southwest of the park. According to the operator of the turbines this array of turbines generates enough electricity to power over 90,000 homes in the Walla Walla Valley.

Modern windmills on distant hills
Seen from the top of the park's hill, these modern wind turbines take advantage of the steady winds that buffet the area.

NPS - Zach Schierl

diagram showing how water powered the grist mill
This diagram illustrates how water turned a horizontal water wheel, which was located on a wooden shaft beneath the mill stones.

NPS - Renee Rusler

"Renewable energy" may not have been the buzzword in Whitman's time that it is today, nevertheless that's exactly what the Whitmans were taking advantage of when they constructed a millpond (which still exists today) to provide power to their gristmill. Using ditches, water was diverted from the nearby Walla Walla River into the pond. Water left the pond via flume (see diagram). The energy of the downward flowing water was then used to turn grinding stones that produced flour for the ever increasing number of inhabitants and visitors at the Whitmans' mission.

Over the years, the Whitmans had three successive gristmills. Harnesing the power of water, and thus making life a little easier, was very important to Dr. Whitman. Despite initial disapproval from the American Board (the group that finacially supported the mission), Dr. Whitman put together a system that used 4- to 5-inch iron burrs and operated similarly to a coffee mill. A visitor in 1839 commented that it was a "crazy thing, but for it the doctor was grateful." Eventually the Board relented and helped the Whitmans acquire 24-inch millstones. Dr. Whitman wrote of the second gristmill: "The mill is a most valuable acquisition to this station. Its simple construction, & its safe & durable water power makes it a great labour saving machine." In 1844, the Whitmans hired a man to make them even larger grinding stones, which measured 40 inches in diameter. The Whitmans were working on a fourth gristmill when the mission was attacked in 1847.

drawing of pond with grist mill
Drawing of pond with grist mill as it might have looked during the Whitmans' time. Water flows down out of the pond to power the grist mill (at right).

NPS - Renee Rusler

MillPond today
Mill pond as it looks today. The grist mill would have been located just behind and to the right of the bench located in the right side of the photo.

NPS - Zach Schierl

solar street light
Using solar panels to power street lights in the parking lot was one of the park's first ventures into using solar power.

NPS - Zach Schierl

Today it is the sun, rather than water, which is the renewable energy star at Whitman Mission. The park generates about 32% of the electricity used from solar panels. The park first experimented using solar panels to power building security lights and parking lot lights. Then in 2005, the park installed 60 solar panels on the roof of the park's maintenance building. These panels have the potential to generate 17,975 kilowatt hours each year. They worked so well that a second set of 18 panels was installed on the roof of the Visitor Center in 2008.

Renewable energy continues to take center stage at Whitman Mission. Read about other ways the park is working to minimize its environmental impact.

Park's maintenance building with 60 solar panels on the roof
In October 2005, Whitman Mission installed 60 photovoltaic panels on the roof of the maintenance building. These panels generate energy that is fed back into the power grid. This was the first such joint effort between a major public utility and a National Park Service site within the state of Washington.


two rows of solar panels on roof
These solar panels on the roof of the park's Visitor Center were installed in 2008.

NPS - Renee Rusler

Last updated: March 1, 2015

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