Boosting Hydropower Output at the Cheoah Dam

Cheoah Dam, Robbinsville, North Carolina
The Cheoah Dam is in line for a major hydropower upgrade.
(cc) Matt Zaske

The U.S. Department of Energy has kicked off a hydropower facility modernization project at the Cheoah Dam in Robbinsville, North Carolina that will produce over 28% more power from existing water resources. This project is supported by $12.9 million in funding under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and $110 million from the private sector. The Cheoah Dam supplies power to Alcoa Inc.’s primary aluminum production factory in Alcoa, Tennessee and surrounding communities. This upgrade will deliver low-cost renewable electricity that will keep the aluminum factory in business for years to come.

The operators of Cheoah Dam estimate that this project can save the 40 hydropower operation jobs and 1,600 aluminum production jobs that would be lost if this facility’s 90-year old equipment, which has exceeded its typical useful life, were to fail. This upgrade is also estimated to create 70 direct jobs during its approximately two-year construction phase.

Upgrades like the ones planned for Cheoah Dam represent significant opportunities to make environmentally sound hydropower even more cost-effective. This project will boost the Cheoah Dam’s total generating capacity to 129 megawatts, reduce the plant’s dependence on fossil fuels by 60%, reduce the risk of oil spillage, and add 40-50 years to the facility’s life. The work will not require any dam modifications or significant regulatory delays.

The Cheoah Dam is located on the Little Tennessee River in western North Carolina and was completed in 1919. Four of the five hydropower turbines at this facility are original equipment, with the fifth added in 1949. The modernization upgrades include replacing the oldest units with new high-efficiency turbines, generators, and transformers, and upgrading other equipment plant-wide.

Hydropower generation plays a unique role in supporting a clean energy future. The water stored in dams can be released to generate electricity when needed. The ability to quickly ramp up power output makes hydropower a natural fit with wind, solar, and other renewable energy sources that supply variable power.

DOE’s Wind and Water Power Program promotes the research, testing, development, and deployment of innovative technologies, including conventional hydropower.

Read Hydropower and Energy Potential at Non-powered Dams from Amazon.