Electricity isn’t the only form of energy that a federal dam is capable of reliably producing – there’s also curiosity, wonder and respect.
That energy was abundant among a group of about 50 Northwest public power customers who recently spent a day exploring McNary Dam, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ plant near Hermiston.
The Bonneville Power Administration, the Public Power Council, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Corps have organized these annual visits over the past decade to give utility customers a first-hand view of the operations and investment needs of the Federal Columbia River Power System.
“These tours provide a great opportunity for those of us who generally work on the policy side of the power supply system to acquaint ourselves with the operations side of the business,” said Chad Jensen, CEO of Inland Power and Light in Spokane. “It also helps us as a whole to recognize the monumental asset we have in the federal hydro system.”
The group included utility executives, commissioners and staff from across the Northwest, including Pend Orielle, Idaho; Seattle, Snohomish and Benton County, Wash.; and Eugene and Tillamook. BPA was represented by Mark Gendron, senior vice president of Power Services, along with manager Mark Jones and staff from his federal hydro project team.
BPA’s ratepayers fund the operations and maintenance costs as well as the capital investments for power-related functions of the 31 dams of the FCRPS. In the first three quarters of fiscal year 2014, BPA’s customers funded $283 million in operations and maintenance costs and approximately $125 million in hydropower capital improvements, all of which affect rates.
“That’s why it’s so important for the region to understand what those costs are, and to ensure that those dollars are being spent as cost effectively as possible,” said Michael Alder, BPA’s representative to the federal partnership that manages the system, called the Joint Operating Committee. “Touring these facilities allows customers to gain insights into the complexities of the day-to-day operations, as well as how decisions are made on capital investments and O&M resource requirements.”
As the group trooped into the vast powerhouse, glowing figures on a scoreboard overhead drove home the value of the hydroelectric production at McNary. The 14 generating units within the 1957-vintage dam have a total capacity of 980 megawatts.
Operations managers David Coleman and Tim Roberts of the Corps pointed out that even in late August, during the weeks of the lowest water flow of the year, McNary was still reliably pumping out almost 400 megawatts of electricity. The group gazed up at the toteboard’s running totals. Current generation: 386 megawatts . . . Enough to serve about 193,000 homes . . . 579,000 people … $207.3 million year-to-date approximate value.
“It’s just kind of amazing,” said Yvonne Raap, who has worked with the 39,000 members of Inland Power & Light in Spokane for six years but had never been in a hydroelectric facility. “It makes me think: Here I am, standing on a site that generates power to almost 200,000 homes and to almost 600,000 people daily. I feel like a part of something bigger.”
The day’s insights ranged from the large – a five-year project to replace the copper stator windings on 10 generators – to the small – the countless spiders festooning every available handrail on the outdoor decks.
“Ewwww! Ick! They’re everywhere,” some members of the group exclaimed as they traversed the decks. “Why don’t you just spray them?”
“We’re over the river here – there’s fish down there,” Roberts replied simply.
That was the first lesson about the ways federal agencies have modified the operations and structures of Columbia Basin dams to better protect threatened and endangered fish. Roberts explained that federal laws and Corps practices have evolved away from the use of insecticides and other chemicals at the dam, adding that maintenance staffers knock the garden spiders down when necessary with environmentally friendly, low-cost sprays of water.
Next, utility customers saw some of the innovations to help young fish pass the dam safely on their way to the Pacific Ocean. These include surface-passage weirs, installed in the spillways in 2007, and a flume, completed in 2012, that deposits juvenile fish from the bypass system into the river’s “sweet spot,” in a better position to head directly downriver.
Roberts shared another unusual example of a maintenance challenge: buildups of tumbleweed next to the upriver side of the dam. With McNary located just below the confluence of the Snake and Columbia rivers, “we’re the catcher’s mitt for a lot of debris,” he said.
Why would a floating mat of tumbleweed matter so much? Because the wire-sharp vegetation can slice the scales of the endangered fish the federal partners are striving to protect. Roberts said the Corps now rakes the river for debris about a half dozen times a year – and one cleanup at McNary yielded the equivalent of two football fields of tumbleweed.
“It’s quite interesting to hear about what they are doing for fish and what operating challenges result from it,” said Clark PUD Commissioner Jim Malinowski.
Inside the dam, the group learned about three major efforts to refurbish critical equipment. They include a six-year, $80 million project to replace the copper stator windings on 10 generators, an $11 million project to install digital controls on 14 governors, and a $35 million project to refurbish the electrical distribution system from the 2-megawatt “station-service” generators that power the plant itself.
“We ran the system really, really hard for decades and got really good performance from it,” Alder told the group. “Some of the lowest-cost energy in the world was produced here. But we’ve worn out many of the major components, and we’ll be reinvesting in the system from here on out for a number of years.”
Utility representatives said they valued the chance to deepen their knowledge of the inner workings of the FCRPS.
“Growing up in the Northwest and then working for 31 years in California, I’d say people in the Northwest don’t appreciate to the extent they should the value of the federal system,” said Malinowski, who worked at Pacific Gas & Electric for three decades, including as power control manager. “The tour does give you a better understanding of the entire Columbia River system and the operations of different facilities. It was well worthwhile.”
Raap was looking forward to describing her experience to others who rely on public power: “The grand scale of the building, the machinery, the water flowing as far as the eye can see, and the powerful turbines bringing energy to our homes – I wish all of our members at Inland Power could see it.”