The Nashville District continues use of funds granted under the Section 212 Water Resources Development Act of 2000 for hydropower plant rehabilitation to bring generators up to date through the Hydropower Modernization Program.
Project managers managing Nashville District 212 projects include Sam Jaser, Chris Stoltz, Omar Acevedo, Austin P'Pool, Mason Carter, and Mike Lee. Dana Sexton is the 212 Program Manager. All Hydropower managers can work on 212 projects within the Nashville District.
Section 212 authorized the Corps to accept and expend a portion of hydroelectricity revenues to perform rehabilitation work on hydropower equipment throughout the Nashville District in Tennessee and Kentucky. The rehabilitation of nine hydropower plants, 28 units and aging equipment ensure the production of more hydropower into the future to energize local cities and towns.
Sexton said these rehabilitation projects bring the hydropower plants up to date and they also ensure the Nashville District can reliably produce power that can quickly come online during periods of peak usage and critical energy shortages, like the Christmas Eve blackouts that swept across Nashville last winter.
“Hydropower is very helpful during power shortage situations, because we can quickly come online and produce the power needed during emergencies and fill that gap, so people aren’t as greatly impacted,” said Sexton.
Most hydropower units in the Nashville District began operating between 1950 and 1977, making these units outdated and challenging to find replacement parts for repairs.
“Most hydropower equipment has met the service life at Nashville District plants in the Cumberland River system. The objective for the Section 212 Program is to replace old equipment with more modern equipment so these plants can continue to produce power and increase the amount of power they produce,” said Sexton.
The hydropower plants in the Nashville District have been operating for over 50 years, exceeding their typical design life of 35-40 years. As a result, the risk of component failure increases every day.
Memorandum of Agreements between the Army Corps of Engineers, Nashville District, Department of Energy Southeastern Power Administration, and power preference customers provides Section 212 rehabilitation funding for these rehabilitation projects.
“Wolf Creek and Old Hickory have substantial turbine generator rehabilitation work upcoming. Taking care of these upgrades now will ensure a more cost-effective hydropower impact on the region in for the future,” said Sexton.
The projects are complete turbine generator rehabilitations, consisting of replacing and upgrading the main generating equipment. The direct current exciter replacement projects help power the plant while engineers get a generator online. These projects are done in preparation for the larger turbine generator rehabilitation projects.
“Wolf Creek turbine generator rehabilitation is currently in the design phase and is expected to be rewarded to a hydropower construction contractor in 2024,” said Jaser.
The design process for Wolf Creek turbine generator rehabilitation is currently ongoing at 90% complete, meeting the September deadline for this step of the process.
Jaser, who also leads the Generator Step-up Unit transformer replacement project, said the Nashville District will meet with contractors who are considered industry expects to review the design plans.
“By reviewing the specs beforehand, the solicitation process happens a lot easier. We want to ensure there’s nothing that needs to be modified before the acquisition and solicitation portion of the process is completed,” said Jaser.
With a technical background in electrical engineering, Jaser is a huge asset to the hydropower team. His experience with the electrical equipment used at hydropower projects helps with planning the work and understanding the challenges, so teams can prioritize the necessary work.
Sexton said Jaser’s unique engineering knowledge helps him manage the projects he’s working on and serve as another layer of review on the project.
“Jaser’s background strengthens the Nashville District on several levels, one being the ability to review certain steps ahead of time and make any necessary changes before we move to the next phase,” said Sexton.
The Wolf Creek Hydropower Plant Rehabilitation Project design phase started in 2022. Jaser works closely with the quality control team and technical teams during this phase.
“As a project manager with an electrical engineering background, I’m glad to put these skills to work. I help create functional and critical ways to improve the processes we use to get these projects done quickly and efficiently,” said Jaser.
The project is expected to take approximately 10 years and will enter the acquisition phase in 2024, then contractors will bid for the contract and eventually begin construction.
The Old Hickory turbine generator rehabilitation project will replace three out of four turbine generator units. The Corps rehabilitated the fourth generator under a separate Section 212 funded contract.
Stoltz, project manager for Old Hickory Dam Turbine Generator Rehabilitation Project, said the new generators will be rated at 40,500 MW and contractors will replace three turbines with new Kaplan turbines, rewind existing generators, and refurbish associated equipment and components for three units.
Before starting the turbine generator rehabilitation work, the Corps completed a Hydropower Rehabilitation Analysis Report in 2022, where engineers studied different alternatives to complete the necessary repairs.
“This report helps the design team leading the engineering and design phase to know which alternative will yield the most benefit once completed,” said Stoltz.
The Corps awarded the construction contract in January 2023 and the project is currently in the engineering during construction and supervisory and administration phase. Repairs are scheduled to begin in March 2025 after the contractor submits and gets approval for their construction plans.
“The contractor will be off-site for two years planning, designing, and manufacturing before mobilizing and removing the first unit in 2025. This off-site time is critical and lays the foundation for the successful replacement of the first unit. It gives the team an opportunity to look over the contractor’s plan and ensure it meets the requirements of the plans and specifications,” said Stoltz.
Sexton said Stoltz has done a great job leading the Old Hickory rehabilitation project, he's been actively involved with the contract from the beginning.
“Stoltz and his team had a technical site visit with the contractor and our technical staff early in the contract ensuring everyone was on the same page to meet deadlines successfully. He’s committed to being as cost effective as possible through this entire process,” said Sexton.
The Corps awarded the Old Hickory Dam Turbine Generator Rehabilitation Project to Andritz Hydro, a global supplier of plants, equipment, and services for hydropower stations, in February 2023 and is expected to complete the work by August 2029.
The Nashville District power plants produce over 3.2 billion kilowatt-hours per year on average. Based on an average annual household consumption of 10,715 kWh, as provided by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, that is enough energy to support 304,000 homes annually.
(The public can obtain news, updates and information from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District on the district’s website at www.lrn.usace.army.mil, on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/nashvillecorps and on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/nashvillecorps.)
A monumental feat of engineering and progress stands tall in the heart of the Cumberland River basin. Dale Hollow Dam and Lake, authorized by the Flood Control Act of 1938 and the River and Harbor Act of 1946, emerged to control the floodwaters of the Obey River and contribute to the reduction of flood levels at municipal, industrial, and agricultural areas along the Cumberland, lower Ohio, and Mississippi Rivers.
Contractors completed the flood control project in 1943 but suspended the construction of the powerhouse. In July 1946, construction of the powerhouse resumed, and Dale Hollow Dam became the first of nine U.S. Corps of Engineers power plant erected within the Cumberland River basin.
Stanley Carter, power plant superintendent, described the planning of Dale Hollow Dam and the subsequent dams as a "holistic" approach to taming the Cumberland River system. "The Corps created each of the dam sites to work in harmony with each other," he explained, pointing out the distinct roles played by non-river run plants like Dale Hollow, Wolf Creek, Laurel River, Center Hill, and J. Percy Priest, which primarily served as storage facilities for flood control. In contrast, the river run plants along the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers focused on navigation as their primary mission, with minimal water storage capacity.
From 1948 to 1953, contractors added three Francis power-generating turbine units to the power plant. Each unit can produce 16-18 megawatts of power. Together, the turbines generate up to 54 megawatts of power, enough to supply the needs of a town with approximately 45,000 people.
For the town of Celina, with a population of 1,400, that's enough power to keep the entire town powered in the event of a complete or partial energy loss.
The powerplant does more than generate power. Since hydropower is an immediate source of energy, hydropower turbines work as backup generators. Dale Hollow's turbines stabilize the 69-kilovolt electrical grid system it connects to, providing a reliable and steady electricity source during increased demand or emergencies. By increasing the voltage on the turbine units, the voltage on the entire electrical grid system receives a boost.
"We're like the Red Roof Inn. We keep the lights on," said Steven Crawford, journeyman electrician.
To keep the lights on, Carter relies on a strong, highly competent, and professional team to maintain the aging equipment. The team includes Office Attendant Amanda Matheny, Senior Electrician Paul Drinkard, Journeyman Electricians Waylon Hackett, Steve Crawford, Stanley Theisen, Senior Mechanic Brian Perry, Journeyman Mechanics Kyle Cross, Josh Marcum, Chris Boone, and Maintenance Workers Jeremy Bilbrey and Elijah Garrett.
Mechanics and electricians must complete a rigorous four-year training program in addition to the education they receive before coming to the Corps.
Carter described the training program as a testament to the field's commitment to safety. "We have a great responsibility to intimately know every aspect of our job and the equipment so we can operate in a safe environment while ensuring the safety of those around us."
The highly skilled maintenance staff work hard to keep the equipment operating at the same efficiency it did 80 years ago but go above and beyond. "They're innovative thinkers who find creative ways to do more with less," said Crawford.
At the power plant, creativity and innovation are on display. Garrett and Bilbrey have spent time applying fresh and updated coats of paint around the plant, giving it that 'new plant' glow. Marcum, a multi-talented individual, inspires a sense of pride and professionalism within the plant through his work. He has created custom light features projecting the 'Essayons' logo and a wood-framed elevator car shaft with the Corps Castle.
Creativity and innovative problem-solving are a theme at Dale Hollow. For 80 years, the generator turbine floor has been without a restroom. Maintenance workers have had to traverse the plant to clean themselves up after a job or utilize the bathroom. Additionally, access to drainage from a toilet was non-existent. Employees found an area on the turbine floor where they could create a washroom and install a toilet that can pump drainage to the existing sewer and assist in pumping the sink drain water to the sewer. When it's finished, employees will be able to use the sink for clean up and direct the wastewater to an appropriate method to be treated.
Carter described how mechanics and electricians recently rehabilitated the drive component of the tail deck crane for a fraction of the cost and now have another skillset. "Dale Hollow has become a reliable source of sustainability and reliability due to the professionalism of these people," said Carter.
Thanks in part to the pioneering efforts of Dale Hollow Dam and the people who keep it running, the Cumberland River Basin has been a steadfast provider of sustainable power to Tennessee and Kentucky for the past 80 years and will continue to provide power well into the future.
The public can obtain news, updates and information from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District on the district’s website at www.lrn.usace.army.mil, on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/nashvillecorps and on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/nashvillecorps.
Follow us on LinkedIn for the latest Nashville District employment and contracting opportunities at https://www.linkedin.com/company/u-s-army-corps-of-engineers-nashville-district.
When thousands of gallons of water flow through a dam, it generates a lot of force and power.
But what happens when you harness that power? You could provide electricity to a community or two, of course.
Recently, a developer announced they will construct four new hydropower plants at locking facilities on all three major rivers in the greater Pittsburgh region.
“Partnering with developers to provide hydropower to the community is an important function,” said Benjamin Sakmar, the hydropower coordinator for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District. “Especially in this day and age, the push for renewable energy is getting a lot of focus. We want to be good partners with companies looking to provide hydropower construction within the district.”
Rye Development, a developer of low-impact renewable hydropower generation, will construct facilities at Emsworth Locks and Dams on the Ohio River, at Monongahela River Locks and Dam 4, also known as Charleroi, and at the Allegheny River Locks and Dam 2.
“The Pittsburgh region has some of the most productive low impact run of river hydroelectric opportunities available in the U.S.” said Ushakar Jha, vice president for project engineering at Rye. “The economic benefit of constructing these projects will be felt by the local labor force in the region.”
The Pittsburgh District already has nine licensed and operating hydropower plants at their federal facilities, including five at locks and dams and four at reservoirs. Private industries or local governments run the plants to provide electricity to residents.
“Hydropower uses a resource that we have plenty of in our region: water,” Sakmar said. “We have the ideal topography, which channels the flow of water into our rivers and into our reservoirs. Some of our projects have been around for 100 years, so they already have energy built up, ready to harness with hydropower plants.”
Generally, hydropower plants work the same way on the river as at reservoirs. They take the force from water flow to spin large turbines connected to generators, transforming mechanical energy into electricity.
“The market in this region is incredibly advantageous from a power-offtake standpoint. These are some of the most productive projects with a clear line to commercial operation,” Jha said.
The capacity of each project will vary, but Rye estimates the four facilities will generate 250,000 megawatt hours annually for the next 100 years or more, enough to power 25,000 households per year.
Once construction for a new hydropower plant begins, completion may take 24 to 36 months. Rye has not yet set a date for breaking ground.
“The Pittsburgh District is critical to realizing these projects,” Jha said. “We are excited to work with the district moving forward, and this effort represents a once in a lifetime opportunity for the Pittsburgh region.”
The Emsworth location will host two hydropower plants because of its two dams. Emsworth is adjacent to Neville Island, located on the main channel of the Ohio River, just downstream from downtown Pittsburgh. Allegheny County has entered into a power purchase agreement with Rye to supply renewable electricity to the county from the Emsworth Project.
The Allegheny River Lock and Dam 2 is next to the Highland Park Bridge. The project will provide the University of Pittsburgh with on-demand, locally generated renewable power.
The Monongahela River Locks and Dam 4 at Charleroi is finishing up a significant construction project to enlarge a chamber that began nearly 20 years ago. Rye will pursue hydropower construction sometime after the chamber is complete.
The constructor expects each project to generate 150-200 family wage jobs. In addition to providing renewable energy, some facilities include investment in new recreational fishing sites and a walkway leading from a parking area with designated parking spaces to the fishing platform.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers does not select the locations for new hydropower plants. Developers – whether private companies or local governments looking to provide power to their citizens – choose sites based on economic factors. Namely, they determine whether licensing, designing, planning, and constructing a hydropower plant will produce enough power for enough customers to remain in business.
“Choosing a hydropower site all boils down to economics,” Sakmar said. “Developers need to be sure choosing a location is going to be economical and profitable for them. Sometimes that includes making sure they have buyers for their electricity and investors ahead of time.”
Even though the Pittsburgh District operates 23 locks and dams and 16 reservoirs, only nine of those locations have hydropower plants in operation. Together, they have the potential to produce 570 megawatts, able to power 670,000 households per year.
In addition to the nine already in place, Rye and other developers have licensed 12 total hydropower facilities yet to be constructed.
Developers who want to build a hydropower facility must submit their plans through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. FERC has the authority to decide whether a developer can build and operate a hydropower facility at a requested location. In addition, FERC performs environmental reviews to ensure facilities will not degrade the environment. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers assists with design reviews at various planning stages.
“We work with the developer every step of the way,” Sakmar said. “We make sure a new facility isn’t going to cause any undue risk to our infrastructure, the public, water quality or the environment.”
Hydropower has several environmental requirements to maintain quality downstream, including water temperature, dissolved oxygen levels, and flow.
Safety and impact on water operations are other important factors. The Pittsburgh District does not change its outflow projections at reservoirs or locking facilities to produce more electricity. Instead, the district determines outflow at reservoirs according to its mission to reduce the risk of flooding, keep river navigation flowing and meet specific water quality projections.
“Our primary mission is to protect lives and support inland navigation. We want to make sure new hydropower plants are not going to impair the mission for why our dams were built in the first place,” Sakmar said.
Reviewing a proposed plan and licensing each facility can take several years before construction can begin. It can be a long, arduous process, but one that helps ensure the quality of the nations’ waters while boosting local economies.
“Partnership with developers is key to transitioning our dams to meet 21st century needs,” Sakmar said. “Each of these partnerships we have with developers is beneficial in harnessing resources and energy we already have, rather than trying to depend on non-renewable materials. This is just one little piece of the puzzle to help solve the overall energy needs we’re all looking to navigate.”
In the past, when someone at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) mentioned clouds, they most often were referring to the weather. However, in today’s modern context, “the cloud” can mean many things. At USACE’s Institute for Water Resources (IWR), it most often describes the Civil Works Business Intelligence (CWBI) program. CWBI has been a USACE leader in cloud implementation over the past 10 years and continues to refactor Civil Works data and system assets to gain efficiencies, integrate resources, and reduce Information Technology (IT) maintenance and cost.
The CWBI program is one of USACE’s key Automated Information Systems (AIS) and is a critical backbone to the Civil Works mission. “CWBI touches almost every aspect of the Civil Works mission as it relates to data and information delivery,” says Mr. Edward E. Belk Jr., Director of Civil Works. “We rely on the cloud infrastructure, cybersecurity implementation, and system engineering services CWBI provides to ensure critical data and analysis mission requirements are met.” CWBI’s current purpose is to integrate Civil Works data in a cloud-smart environment that standardizes data organization and management, ensures cybersecurity, delivers innovative technology solutions, rationalizes resources, and enhances visualization. CWBI currently supports more than 100 Civil Works applications across the USACE enterprise and is used widely by internal and external stakeholders. CWBI partners with multiple entities within USACE, federal partners, and others to deliver data and resources where it is needed most. For example, CWBI’s cloud infrastructure serves as the backbone to help regulatory permits be issued, the public understand where levees and dams are located, and to deliver navigation charts to vessel operators traversing inland waterways. CWBI is led by a small program management office overseen by IWR and the USACE Cold Regions Research and Engineering Lab’s Remote-Sensing and GIS Center of Expertise. “As the first production cloud operating environment within USACE, CWBI has transitioned standalone applications to a cloud environment where levels of computational capacity, data management, data interconnectivity, and cyber security that were unattainable only a few years ago,” stated Dr. Joe Manous, IWR Director. “These accomplishments are why the CWBI team was recognized as the IWR 2022 Team of the Year.”
CWBI leverages the cloud in benefit of the Civil Works mission to deliver critical products to decision-makers and the public. For example, CWBI is responsible for providing a common resource in the cloud to collect data for Civil Works operation and maintenance (O&M) activities. CWBI then couples the O&M information with financial details from other USACE AIS to help report program status, performance metrics, and compliance with legislation and regulation. “CWBI plays a vital role in the Hydropower Business Line’s understanding of the operational performance of its generating assets,” stated Mr. David Sanna, USACE Hydropower Digital Transformation Lead. “Hydropower has worked directly with the CWBI team to develop and deploy a new Hydropower Homepage within the CWBI platform, which establishes a central hub for communication, data reporting, and visualization of key performance metrics across the business line. Building on this foundation, the Hydropower Business Line is engaging with CWBI on further development to track additional data sources and enhance the analytical tools available to its users.” In addition to Hydropower, CWBI is also supporting other Civil Works O&M business lines. For example, the USACE Natural Resources Management (NRM) program supports all USACE missions while having the unique assignment to manage and protect more than 260 million public visitors annually at over 400 lakes and approximately 5,000 parks in 43 states. “Efficiencies of managing the natural, cultural, environmental and recreation come from understanding the inventory, performance, benefits and resources for each project,” states, Mr. Jeffrey Krause, Natural Resources Management Chief. “Moving the data from multiple databases and platforms to CWBI provides a one stop entry and reporting tool to maximize use of resources, improve public safety and quickly show leaders and the public the benefits the NRM Program offers to the nation.”
CWBI also utilizes the cloud to innovate. When a new solution is necessary to support Civil Works, CWBI employs Software as a Service (SaaS), serverless technology, or containerized delivery using an agile approach instead of traditional servers, stand-alone software packages, and databases that require significant maintenance and attention. “We cannot afford to just lift and shift assets to the cloud without any changes,” stated Lyle Seethaler, CWBI Technical Lead. “CWBI helps data and system owners evaluate their requirements so they can be properly configured and take advantage of the various components a cloud environment offers.” Furthermore, CWBI utilizes cloud IT resources to scale assets as requirements change and share engineering and cybersecurity resources to help the USACE Civil Works mission save money. If each Civil Works application were to pay for its own cloud environment, then the annual cost to support these initiatives would be exponentially greater. CWBI has worked to methodically migrate Civil Works applications year-by-year to the cloud. It has taken time, but refactoring applications to gain benefit from cloud-native solutions allows for cost-savings, elasticity, and flexibility. Each Civil Works application is often different, so re-architecting to modify software and codebase allows for cloud-based features to be incorporated and utilized. CWBI also serves as a rationalizer, ensuring data is integrated and applications are amalgamated where possible.
Now that so many Civil Works assets have migrated to the cloud, CWBI is proactively focusing on the data elements that reside there to ensure they are visible, accessible, understandable, linked, trustworthy, interoperable, and secure (VAULTIS). “To achieve USACE’s vision of becoming a data-driven enterprise and leveraging the data insights to make better informed decisions requires all its mission and business areas to come together and develop standardized, automated, and repeatable processes addressing data governance, access, quality,” states Mr. Walton Cheung, USACE Chief Data Officer. “CWBI is contributing to the USACE Enterprise Data Strategy goals and objectives by leaning into the VAULTIS principles. This transformation is incremental, and I appreciate CWBI partnering with me to achieve this vision on our journey together.” Additionally, to take advantage of artificial intelligence and machine learning, CWBI must be aligned with VAULTIS principles so that outputs are meaningful. “The adage of ‘garbage in, garbage out’ rings true,” says Mr. Will Breitkreutz, CWBI Technical Lead. “How can you expect to take advantage of automation if your data is not accurate or well documented? You cannot. Therefore, CWBI’s role in data management in the cloud and implementing a clear strategy is necessary for the USACE Civil Works mission to be successful.”
This year, the CWBI program is focused on maintaining its core services, data-focused delivery, fulfilling modernization assignments, and supporting the Civil Works modules hosted within its cloud environment. For example, the program is actively developing a new Corps Project Notebook application to help the USACE enterprise report and track project locations in a standardized format using a common geospatial solution set that is aligned with defined USACE regulation. Furthermore, CWBI is expanding its geospatial capability with the deployment of a new Geographic Information System (GIS) environment that takes advantage of cloud-native setup and will deliver mission needs internally as well as to the public. The new environment will be more robust than previous iterations and standardize multiple GIS processes.
Engineering in the cloud has allowed CWBI to deliver an easy to use, flexible, cost-effective, reliable, scalable, innovative, and secure system. CWBI’s cloud environment is capable of automation, mobility, and integration. It will continue to take effort and resources to maintain, but the impression of what a cloud means to the USACE Civil Works mission has changed.
To learn more about the CWBI program and its cloud engineering efforts, please contact the USACE Institute for Water Resources at IWR@usace.army.mil.
Ice Harbor Lock and Dam boasts some of the most cutting-edge hydropower technology in the world. Two advanced technology turbines currently sit in the powerhouse, with a third one on the way. These new turbines were designed to improve fish passage and generate electricity more efficiently.
However, the story of Ice Harbor’s powerhouse begins, not with cutting-edge technology, but with a mechanical failure.
In January 1962, there was only one generator unit installed at the newly built dam. Then, during a critical load rejection test on January 5, the sudden loss of load caused the turbine to spin too fast. The blades of the turbine shifted outward, colliding with the discharge ring that encircled them.
The resulting damage put the unit out of commission for an entire year.
The birth of the lower Snake River dams
At the beginning of the 1900s, there was a drive to harness the rivers of the Northwest for navigation and hydropower. To this end, the River and Harbor Act of 1916 directed the examination of the lower Snake River for a series of locks and dams.
Multiple studies were performed in the region, and in June of 1938, House Document 704, 75th Congress, 3rd Session, was published. This report recommended, among other things, the construction of four dams on the lower Snake River.
However, it was not until 1945 when the River and Harbor Act authorized those four dams to be built. These dams would provide the region with navigation, irrigation access, and most importantly, hydropower.
Hydropower is a clean, renewable and reliable energy source. As Congress authorized the construction of hydropower dams in the Northwest, they saw the potential to create abundant and affordable energy in the region. However, setting up the federal hydropower system was not without red tape.
When Bonneville Dam, the first dam on the lower Columbia River, was being constructed, there were debates about whether the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could market the electricity its dams produced. These debates resulted in the Bonneville Power Administration being created in 1937. USACE would operate and maintain the dams they constructed; however, BPA would handle the distribution of the hydropower.
Today, BPA is the federal agency responsible for marketing electricity produced by 31 federal dams in the Northwest that are operated by USACE and the Bureau of Reclamation. They also market power from one nonfederal nuclear plant and several small nonfederal power plants.
USACE is now the single largest owner and operator of hydropower in the U.S., with 24% of the nation's hydropower generating capacity. The dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers generate 63% of USACE hydropower.
The first and furthest downriver of the four lower Snake River dams was named Ice Harbor, a reference to a nearby ice-free cove used by boat operators in the late 1800s.
Planning for Ice Harbor Lock and Dam began in early 1948 with the USACE Portland District. Then, in November 1948, USACE established the Walla Walla District, and the Ice Harbor project was handed over, along with jurisdiction over the three remaining lower Snake River dams.
But before construction could begin, the project was put on hold. In June of 1950, the Korean War began, and President Harry Truman put a freeze against new government construction projects. Ice Harbor Lock and Dam would remain in limbo for five years.
While the project was stuck in planning, engineers continued to tweak its design. These changes included increasing the number of turbine units in the powerhouse from three, to five, to six. The individual generator capacity for each turbine unit was also increased, from 65,000 kw to 90,000 kw.
These decisions would influence the designs of the future lower Snake River dams, whose powerhouses would come to exceed Ice Harbor’s in capacity.
Keeping the lights on
Construction finally began in early 1956, and by 1961 the first generator unit was installed. It produced commercial power for the first time on December 18, 1961.
It was a promising beginning, however a mechanical failure during critical load rejection tests in January 1962 resulted in extensive damage to the turbine. The entire generator unit had to be disassembled and was out of commission until February of the following year.
Despite the setback, two more generator units were installed and began generating power in February 1962. While the construction plans called for six generator units in the powerhouse, only three were to be installed right away. The plan was to install the remaining three sometime in 1980, as the region’s need for power generation increased.
However, the population of the Pacific Northwest grew much quicker than expected, and the oil embargo of 1973 led to an energy crisis across the United States. BPA realized the power supply in the region would soon be exceeded by increasing demands. Something needed to be done.
The Walla Walla District responded to this issue by rushing to double the generating capacity of Ice Harbor and the other three dams on the lower Snake River. Each of the four dams would go from three generator units to six. Ice Harbor’s last three units were installed in 1976. The last unit on the lower Snake River was installed in 1979 at Lower Monumental Lock and Dam.
These efforts by the Walla Walla District helped prevent a detrimental power shortage in the region. Ice Harbor and the lower Snake River dams remain a vital part of the power grid to this day.
Balancing the grid
As the water passes through the dam’s powerhouse, it falls from the upstream level behind the dam to a lower downstream level. This water, moving with tremendous force, is guided down to the turbine.
As it strikes the blades of the turbine, the water turns the turbine like a propeller. The turning turbine spins coils of wires inside a large generator mounted above it, converting the mechanical energy of falling water into electrical energy. Transmission lines then carry the electricity to homes and businesses.
The power grid is a system of power plants, like hydropower dams, and transmission lines. To function properly, the grid must produce enough electricity to meet the demand. If there is not enough electricity to meet the demand, not everyone will be able to receive power, leading to rolling blackouts. If demand suddenly drops, and too much electricity is being produced, generators are shut down to prevent damages. Ice Harbor’s failed generator unit in 1962 is a good example of what can happen when energy supply exceeds demand.
This means the power grid must be flexible and responsive. It must be able to rise and meet heavier loads, and it must be able to slow down to avoid damaging itself.
In the Pacific Northwest, hydropower provides about 60% of the region’s power needs.
Unlike nonrenewable energy sources that use up their fuel, such as coal and natural gas, the water used to generate hydropower is used over and over. Water flowing down the river evaporates into clouds, falls as rain, and flows down the river to be used again.
Today, the Pacific Northwest also uses wind and solar power to generate electricity. On their own, wind and solar cannot balance the power grid. The amount of electricity they produce rises and falls based on the amount of wind or sunlight available. This is problematic because the grid needs electricity production to rise and fall in response to energy demand, not weather.
Because wind and solar fluctuate, the power grid needs an additional energy source, one that can pick up the slack when wind and solar aren’t available. Traditional sources like coal and natural gas can fill this need, but they cannot ramp up energy production fast enough to cover sudden drops in production by other power plants.
Hydropower, on the other hand, can start up quickly. In a hydropower dam, a turbine unit can go from producing 0 to 100 megawatts in about 2 minutes. It’s this kind of flexibility that allows the power grid to incorporate energy sources like wind and solar, by picking up hydropower during their sudden drops in power generation.
In 1995, the Turbine Survival Program, funded by BPA, began seeking ways to improve hydropower turbine units with regards to fish passage. The program assessed what factors led to injuries of fish passing through a turbine unit. This data allowed engineers to design new turbines that would be safer for fish.
The Walla Walla District awarded a contract to Voith Hydro in 2010 to design and supply one fixed blade turbine and two adjustable blade turbines at Ice Harbor. A contract was awarded to Voith Hydro in 2016 to install the three new turbines.
The first of the three new turbines, the fixed blade, was installed in the Ice Harbor powerhouse on June 8, 2018. The first adjustable blade turbine currently being installed.
These turbines are the first of their kind, designed by USACE personnel and Voith Hydro. The turbines were designed to improve fish passage. They also include greaseless components and improved seal technology to reduce incidents of oil leaking into the river. On top of being better environmentally, projections indicate the new turbines are 3% to 4% more efficient at generating electricity.
Living on the lower Snake
Ice Harbor Lock and Dam was dedicated on May 9, 1962, the first of four dams on the lower Snake River. It was a big event, with the ceremony being performed by Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Today, Ice Harbor is 61 years old, and the Walla Walla District is celebrating its 75th Anniversary on November 1, 2023.
A lot has happened since the Ice Harbor powerhouse came online. Between 2017 and 2021, Ice Harbor has generated an average of 1,655,485 megawatt hours every year for the region. On its own, it has the capacity to generate enough power for all Eastern Washington, except for Spokane.
And its capacity is not stagnant. The Walla Walla District is always leaning forward to makes its projects better. The third modern turbine planned for Ice Harbor will be installed sometime in the next few years, representing another step towards hydropower that is more efficient and safer for fish.
Both Ice Harbor and the Walla Walla District will continue moving forward, innovating and growing in order to serve the region and the nation.