Defense Media Network

Hydropower: USACE Manages the Nation’s Liquid Assets

When USACE dams were constructed in the 1930s and 1940s, engineers knew it was important to think about adult fish survival and how adults would safely pass these new river structures, said Dennis Schwartz, fisheries biologist for the Portland District. “Bonneville Dam was designed and constructed with fish ladders in 1933 that were state of the art. They knew back then how critical safe and expedient upstream passage was to Columbia River salmon and steelhead. Designs for other USACE and non-USACE projects continue to be based on this original pool-to-weir design concept.” Environmental stewardship as a mission took years to coalesce, but it has become a fundamental priority to USACE over the years, he added. “We are looking for ways to safeguard our nation’s natural resources while maximizing hydropower output.”

HDC, a USACE Center of Expertise, is helping to explore how best to prioritize efficiency in existing hydropower dams. One program, the Hydropower Modernization Initiative (HMI), uses asset management principles to support decisions on how to make modernization investments, said Michael Berger, HMI project manager. “We are seeking to provide the greatest return on investment, control USACE’s risk exposure, and create a coordinated, USACE-wide, long-term strategy for reliably, efficiently, and safely maintaining these assets.”

HMI provides a comprehensive condition-based assessment using consistent assumptions across all hydropower plants, Berger said. “It provides a sound basis for allocating investment capital where it makes the most sense.”

A five-year, USACE-wide HMI implementation strategy is being developed by a technical team made up of representatives from USACE districts with hydropower operations and PMAs, Sadiki said. “The completed strategy is expected this year, and we should soon begin seeing elements of that strategy in projects as they complete the design phase.”

In a world facing rising energy costs, operating efficiently isn’t the only concern. “USACE generates 24 percent of all hydropower in the United States, but less than 8 percent of all power comes from renewable sources like hydropower,” Sadiki said.

Additional Hydro Possibilities

Hydropower generation has the flexibility to support other intermittent renewable resources, such as wind and solar energy, Sadiki said. “When wind generation is reduced during high demand for power, hydropower generators can start up quickly to replace lost wind generation, helping even out the supply.”

The PMAs are investing in wind energy generation and are planning to improve the power distribution grids needed to support it. “In 1997, BPA did not have any wind resources connected to its system. By 2010, we had already integrated over 3,000 megawatts,” said Steve Wright, BPA administrator. “Integrating wind, a variable resource, into the grid is a great engineering and economic challenge. Intermittent wind energy must be coupled with other resources that can provide power when the wind is not blowing. The power generated by the Corps is vital to a robust wind program.”

In its early years, USACE proudly supported the needs of the nation, building fortifications and later managing the nation’s waterways. Its multipurpose dams provide flood risk management and offer recreational opportunities. As USACE looks toward the future, generating hydropower will remain a vital mission as it seeks environmentally sustainable ways to supply power to America. In conjunction with partners from local, state, tribal, and federal agencies, USACE will continue seeking innovative ways to maximize the efficiency of hydropower dams while minimizing the environmental footprint that comes with serving the nation.

This article first appeared in the 2011-2012 edition of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: Building Strong®, Serving the Nation and the Armed Forces publication.

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