Alcoa begins Cheoah hydro plant modernization project

Alcoa has kicked off a $110 million modernization project at Cheoah dam and hydropower plant, one of four hydroelectric power facilities that make up Alcoa Power Generating Inc.’s Tapoco Project.

“Hydropower is clean, renewable, reliable and efficient,” said Rick Bowen, Alcoa Energy president. “These attributes equal sustainability – sustainable energy and sustainable jobs. That’s why we are looking forward to replacing the four 90-year-old Francis turbines with four new high-efficiency turbines, generators and transformers which will provide an additional 22 megawatts of generating capacity at APGI’s Tapoco Cheoah plant.”

Alcoa Energy is a global producer, controlling nearly 3,000 MW of generating capacity to provide for the energy needs of Alcoa’s worldwide smelting and refining system as well as the needs of regional wholesale markets. The business includes Alcoa Power Generating Inc., which owns and manages the 360-MW Tapoco system. 

The modernization project was given a jump start when the U.S. Department of Energy announced it would award Alcoa a $12.95 million grant as part of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The grant was issued by DOE’s Wind and Hydropower Technologies Program.

When announcing the grant last year, DOE Secretary Steven Chu said: “One of the best opportunities we have to increase our supply of clean energy is by bringing our hydropower systems into the 21st Century. With this investment, we can create jobs, help our environment and give more renewable power to our economy without building a single new dam.”

DOE sought cost-shared projects that upgrade existing hydropower facilities without requiring significant civil works modifications to dams, allowing for them to be developed quickly to help create jobs and stimulate the economy.

The first phase of the modernization project will include the upgrade of two of the dam’s five power generation units. Specifically, first phase objectives for this DOE cost-shared project are to purchase four new high-efficiency turbines, generators and transformers, upgrade the balance of plant equipment and complete installation of two units.

Another two units will be upgraded during phase two of the project and will increase Cheoah’s total capacity to 140 MW and add 40 to 50 years of expected useful life to the facility without requiring any modifications to the dam and without any significant regulatory delay.

In total the site has 5 units. Unit 5 was built in 1949 and the generator was rebuilt in 1995. Unit 5 is a 30-MW unit and does not require replacement.

The modernization follows the recent relicensing of the Tapoco project by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The new 40-year license was effective March 1, 2005 and outlines protection, mitigation and enhancement measures for the project that address ecological resources as well as other beneficial uses of the Cheoah and Little Tennessee rivers, including hydropower generation, watershed protection, endangered species enhancement, fish passage and recreational opportunities.

Construction began on Cheoah Dam in 1916 and was completed in 1919. At the time of completion, Cheoah was the world’s highest overflow dam at 225 feet. The dam was made famous by serving as the backdrop of the jump scene in the 1993 major motion picture, The Fugitive, starring Harrison Ford.

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