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USACE’s Hydropower Operation

 

When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) wants to talk hydropower, it looks to its Portland District, where many of the nation’s power-generating operations are linked to navigable water. And when the Portland District gets an unusual request or a call for help, it often assigns the case to Scott Cotner.

USACE’s involvement in hydropower dates back to 1909, when it acquired the St. Marys River hydropower facility on the Sault Ste. Marie Lock and Dam in Michigan. The River and Harbor Act of 1925 gave the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers the authority to identify the costs and feasibility of generating hydropower on the nation’s navigable rivers. Based on that effort, USACE identified 10 federal waterways, including the Columbia River, as potential sites for hydropower operations. Today, USACE operates 353 hydroelectric generating units across 75 reservoirs, producing about one-fourth of the nation’s hydroelectricity. Another 60 non-federal hydropower plants are licensed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to operate at USACE dams. Overall, hydropower generates about 6 percent of U.S. electricity, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

A senior engineer at the Hydropower Design Center (HDC), a USACE center of expertise at Portland District, Cotner fields calls from across the nation. Often he is the last line of defense before USACE offices decide to bring in outside experts for the most challenging problems. “By the time I get involved, it’s usually something that’s out of the ordinary,” he said. “We have lots of smart people to address the usual problems. When a wrench gets in the works, they tend to call me.”

Cotner is often HDC’s resource for electrical challenges at sites across the country, like those in Idaho and Georgia, where he recently helped local USACE staff repair generator stator windings in hydropower facilities. In both cases, the Army Corps was able to avoid calling in costly contractors by having Cotner provide technical support to USACE staff as they made the repairs. At the John Day Lock and Dam, located on the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington, hydro-generator units three and six experienced equipment failures, shutting both generators down. Cotner provided on-site technical direction and support over four months while the USACE staff repaired one of the generators. He successfully managed the in-house repair of one generator while recommending that an outside firm address the other, which had sustained greater damage.

“One of my responsibilities is to help USACE do the repairs themselves. Unfortunately, we have less institutional knowledge than in years past as a result of retirements. One of my jobs is to try to help rebuild that expertise within the Corps.”

 

Key Role of HDC

A 15-year USACE veteran with experience in the utility industry, Cotner is one of 45 electrical engineers at HDC, created in 1948 to support hydroelectric development on the Columbia River. Located at Portland District, HDC serves as USACE’s National Center for Expertise in hydroelectric and large pumping plant engineering services.

USACE’s involvement in hydropower dates back to 1909, when it acquired the St. Marys River hydropower facility on the Sault Ste. Marie Lock and Dam in Michigan. The River and Harbor Act of 1925 gave the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers the authority to identify the costs and feasibility of generating hydropower on the nation’s navigable rivers. Based on that effort, USACE identified 10 federal waterways, including the Columbia River, as potential sites for hydropower operations. Today, USACE operates 353 hydroelectric generating units across 75 reservoirs, producing about one-fourth of the nation’s hydroelectricity. Another 60 non-federal hydropower plants are licensed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to operate at USACE dams. Overall, hydropower generates about 6 percent of U.S. electricity, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

john-day-lock-and-dam

The John Day Lock and Dam Project is 216 miles upriver from the mouth of the Columbia River near the city of Rufus, Oregon. Construction of the project was completed in 1971. The authorized primary project purposes are navigation and power generation. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo

Most of the nation’s hydropower dams were constructed more than 60 years ago and suffer from aging infrastructure. The American Society of Civil Engineers’ “2013 Report Card” awarded a D+ overall to U.S. infrastructure and estimated $3.6 trillion in repairs were needed by 2020 to upgrade parks, levees, bridges, and other systems, which include USACE dams. Army Corps engineers continually monitor the infrastructure, Cotner said. “The first step in managing assets is to do inventory and probability of failure. We need to know where to invest.”

When problems do arise, there is a significant cost-saving incentive in having USACE experts perform the work. “Often staff on-site want to do the repairs, but they don’t have the expertise. I can be there to direct the work. I can provide remote advice by viewing pictures or video and asking on-site staff to take tests and measurements.” Whether evaluations are done on-site or remotely, Cotner can be anywhere in one day by plane or car.

“We can do repairs in about a third of the time that it takes to contract out,” Cotner said. “That’s mainly because contracts must be competitively bid, with USACE writing the project specifications, advertising and publishing the bid notices, evaluating bids, and awarding contracts.”

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