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SMUD’s 2.7-MW South Fork Powerhouse hydroelectric project goes operational

Sacramento Municipal Utility District’s (SMUD) 2.7-MW South Fork hydroelectric powerhouse is now operational on the American River near Camino, Calif.

Electricity from the new powerhouse will supplement generation from an existing powerhouse at Slab Creek Dam. Because the new powerhouse is a small hydro project (less than 30 MW), the electricity it produces counts toward the state Renewable Portfolio Standard. The project received $1.5 million in U.S. Department of Energy grant funding.

The project includes a boating flow release facility about one-quarter mile downstream from Slab Creek Dam. This enhances whitewater boating flows on a 9-mile stretch downstream of the reservoir, improves raft and kayak put-in areas, and provides more boat parking and space. Boating flows will be released from the new facility, rather than from spilling water over Slab Creek Dam.

The powerhouse and boating flow release facility will also enable water releases from the dam for environmental needs, including enhancing fish habitat. The enhancements are required in the 50-year operating license issued by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for SMUD to operate its hydroelectric power plants in the Sierra Nevada, known as the Upper American River Project. The UARP is SMUD’s “Stairway of Power” — a system of hydroelectric generation facilities that provides nearly 700 MW of low-cost, clean, non-carbon-emitting hydropower, enough to provide about 15% to 20% of SMUD’s energy capacity during an average year.

Construction on the powerhouse began in April 2017, with commercial operation Sept. 25, 2020.

“The new South Fork Powerhouse allows us to generate more carbon-free renewable energy,” said SMUD Chief Energy Delivery Officer Frankie McDermott. “The boating flow release facility provides more accurate and safer recreational water flows for boaters while complying with the boating release requirements of the federal 50-year license.”

The South Fork Powerhouse project comes online as SMUD awaits transition closing of the 7-MW Chili Bar hydro facility downriver on the American. SMUD purchased the facility from PG&E last year. Chili Bar is also considered renewable by the state of California.

SMUD is a community-owned, not-for-profit electric service provider for Sacramento County (and small adjoining portions of Placer and Yolo Counties). SMUD’s energy is about 50% carbon-free, and the company is committed to delivering carbon neutral electricity by 2030, ahead of California’s goals.