With 70 years of service behind it, HDC looks to the future

Turbine number 1 at Seattle District’s Chief Joseph Dam is disassembled as a part of a 10-year, $187 million turbine runner replacement project. (Photo by Mike Barner, Hydroelectric Design Center)

Turbine number 1 at Seattle District’s Chief Joseph Dam is disassembled as a part of a 10-year, $187 million turbine runner replacement project. (Photo by Mike Barner, Hydroelectric Design Center)

First in a series of articles about HDC and the vision of its senior leaders

By Diana Fredlund, Public Affairs Office

What comes to mind when you think of the Pacific Northwest? Maybe salmon, the Columbia River, or rain. What about hydropower? That clean, sustainable energy that keeps the lights on.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District remove the turbine runner from hydropower unit two in the power house at Center Hill Dam Oct. 7, 2015. (Photo by Lee Roberts, Nashville District)When talking about hydropower in the Pacific Northwest, people often refer to past events like constructing Bonneville Dam. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is the largest producer of hydropower in the United States. The Corps constructed its first hydropower plant in 1919; Bonneville Dam was one of three hydropower dams constructed under President Roosevelt’s New Deal. Steve Miles, director of the Corps’ Hydroelectric Design Center is proud of the Corps’ history, but now he is looking to the future.

“Hydropower is an integral part of the Corps’ mission across the Nation and it will remain a vital part of our future,” Miles said. “How we got here is important, but to me, what the future holds is even more exciting.”

A brief look back

When the Corps started building Bonneville Lock and Dam in 1936, it employed scores of engineers, many of whom were the foundation for today’s Hydroelectric Design Center. First established in 1948 as the Hydroelectric Design Branch, the organization’s mission was to design the 10 hydropower dams planned on the Columbia and Snake rivers.

Until the 1970s, HEDB engineers focused on designing hydropower dams capable of generating hundreds of megawatts of electricity. Once the Corps finished Walla Walla District’s Lower Granite Dam in 1975 – the last dam constructed on the Columbia River – the mission shifted to operations and maintenance of existing facilities.

In 1980 the organization became the Hydroelectric Design Center and its engineers began focusing on how to operate hydropower dams in a more environmentally friendly way.

Today HDC is a Corps Center of Expertise with 165 employees – mostly engineers – that specializes in hydroelectric and large pumping plant engineering services. In order to more efficiently use its assets, the Corps began consolidating its knowledge base into centers of expertise.

“Since its inception in 1948, HDC has been on the cutting edge of innovative design,” Miles said. “Our focus now is on helping hydropower dams whose turbines and generators are nearing the end of their design lives with what I call remodernizing their existing facilities. We are looking at future trends in digital, electrical and turbine engineering in order to prepare facilities for the next 50 years.”

Innovative approaches needed

With most of the Corps’ hydroelectric dams celebrating 50 years of service and more, HDC’s dedication to remodernizing means many more years of renewable power generation for a society whose need for power continues to grow.

To continue providing innovative strategies, Richard Nelson, HDC’s deputy director, looks for ways to manage the organization’s workload. “One important strategy is to bundle work to minimize downtime. If a generator is being upgraded, is it possible to upgrade the turbine at the same time? Even if the unit isn’t scheduled to be remodernized for a few more years, doing it at the same time could save as much as two years’ downtime later.”

Innovation isn’t restricted to project design; Miles believes HDC excels at innovation in its organizational structure as well. “We can expand our workload capacity by adapting to fulfill each project’s needs. In the past, HDC’s focus was on designing and building dams; later we moved into designing operations and maintenance processes that allowed the facility to operate efficiently. Now we are helping design the next generation of turbines. They will maximize hydropower generation while minimizing impacts to fish migration.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District lifts the rotor assembly from a 270-ton hydropower unit undergoing rehabilitation at the Center Hill Hydropower Plant in Lancaster, Tenn., Sept. 23, 2015. (Photo by Mark Rankin, Nashville District)

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District lifts the rotor assembly from a 270-ton hydropower unit undergoing rehabilitation at the Center Hill Hydropower Plant in Lancaster, Tenn., Sept. 23, 2015. (Photo by Mark Rankin, Nashville District)

Direct funding streamlines repairs

An expanding workload became more likely after a direct funding agreement was signed with Bonneville Power Administration in the late 1990s. Prior to the agreement, all major repairs and maintenance were funded through Congressional appropriations and BPA reimbursed the U.S. Treasury. Under direct funding, BPA funds hydropower-related repairs and replacements without involving the Treasury, which saves time and allows for more consistent planning.

“Direct funding makes it easier to fund and schedule remodernization activities. When funding is easier, the operating projects schedule more work,” Nelson said.

Direct funding has helped HDC’s customers plan needed repairs, according to Mike Posovich, HDC’s Product Coordination Branch chief. “One of our customers is the Nashville District, which is working with Team Cumberland, a group of public utility districts on the Cumberland River in Tennessee. They wanted to optimize their hydropower output by modernizing their dams. HDC came up with a plan based on the experience we’ve had with the Federal Columbia River Power System here in the Pacific Northwest that fit the needs of Nashville District’s customers.”

HDC engineers were able to help Nashville District engineers present the plan to their District Commander. With his support, HDC helped Nashville District design and present their findings to Team Cumberland. “We expect their final decision on the remodernization plan by the end of the year,” Posovich said. “Together we were able to design a plan that addressed the needs of the utility districts for future growth.”

Competency and customer care

Another factor of HDC’s success is its ability to maintain competency, Miles said. “Hydroelectric engineering is a specialty, which means we encourage ongoing certifications and training for both existing and new engineers. Many people don’t realize that about 50 percent of our workforce has been with HDC for less than five years,” Miles said. “We reinstituted the HDC Engineer in Training program and aggressively seek talented young engineers from top-tier engineering colleges. They are tomorrow’s senior leaders; to prepare them for that role we need to ensure they remain well-versed in technology, as well as understanding HDC’s history and organizational culture.”

Miles sees excellent customer care as not only good for their customers, but good for the organization’s future. “Our projects are large, complex and costly. With tens of millions of dollars authorized for one project, our customers need to be able to track expenditures and be able to explain work to their superiors,” he said. “We want HDC to be known as a source of quality technology and innovation, as a trusted advisor who can plan and execute a customer’s project well.”

HDC’s reputation for excellence extends to all projects, whether the design work is completed in-house or by one of HDC’s contracted AE firms. “We make sure our customers know that regardless of who completed the work, it is an HDC design,” Nelson said. “Every product is reviewed and approved by HDC. We stand behind each design and product and it’s important our customers know that.”

HDC’s customers include the 17 Corps districts that generate hydropower and the Bureau of Reclamation’s hydropower dams.

“HDC also conducts special studies for Corps headquarters in remodernization analysis, benchmarking and innovative operations and maintenance processes,” Miles said. “Combined with our support to the power marketing agencies and local public utility districts, our customer base is both varied and numerous.”

To assure there are no casting defects, HDC engineers watch ultrasonic, magnetic, liquid penetrant and visual testing, before verifying a part’s dimensions. (Photo by Sara Rask, Hydroelectric Design Center)

To assure there are no casting defects, HDC engineers watch ultrasonic, magnetic, liquid penetrant and visual testing, before verifying a part’s dimensions. (Photo by Sara Rask, Hydroelectric Design Center)

Building relationships

Meeting its customers’ senior leaders is vital to HDC’s overall success. “Our business is based on relationships, just like many other industries,” Nelson said. “Steve Miles spends at least half of his time meeting leaders and dealing with challenges – or successes – facing our customers.”

Since he joined HDC as its chief in May 2013, Miles has made visits to customers and other stakeholders an important part of his job. “When I joined HDC I saw a high performing team with an outstanding reputation. I saw their commitment to customer service and excellent engineering design. My role is to be the face of HDC for our customers’ senior leaders, to help tell the story of the great engineering we do,” Miles said. “I want to continue what Brent Mahan, HDC’s former chief, started: I want to help our customers embrace long-term planning.”

Planning the future

An HDC project often includes an 18- to 24-month planning window, but Miles wants customers to think in longer timeframes. “Our projects can be up to two years in planning, and take 10 to 15 years to complete,” he said. “As we continue remodernizing these facilities, it’s not too far out to have a 50 or 100 year plan. Our customers would have a better idea of their long-term needs, and it would help us help them manage their facilities effectively into the future.”

For nearly 70 years HDC has been designing equipment and processes to keep Corps hydropower dams up-to date, effective generators of electricity: first by designing the facilities, then developing effective O&M processes and now by helping design the next generation of turbines and generators that will improve efficiency and minimize environmental impacts. The next 70 years will bring new materials and technologies to hydropower generation, HDC and the Corps.

Steve Miles believes HDC will keep the Corps on the cutting edge of technology with new materials, practices and a vision of the future. “Our mission is to help our customers efficiently generate hydropower today and next year and in the coming decades. Our innovation, flexibility and our passion for customer care is what prepares us to face the challenges we’ll face when designing for the future.”

In the next two articles, we ask some of HDC’s senior leaders the question, “What does HDC’s future look like?”