Celebrating 70 years of hydroelectric generation — or is it 71?

Hungry Horse Dam

The Hungry Horse Dam’s reservoir is an exceptionally fun place to recreate, whether you’re camping on its 170 miles of shoreline, boating its 34-mile length, or accessing the neighboring 1.5-million-acre Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex.

Construction on the dam began in 1948. Hungry Horse was the fourth-highest concrete dam in the world upon completion, but its completion date is up for interpretation. Some acknowledge October 1, 1952, when President Truman threw the ceremonial switch to begin hydroelectric generation from Flathead High School. As vice president and presiding officer over the Senate in 1944, Truman was intimately involved in authorizing and funding the dam, and he wanted to celebrate the project’s completion before the end of his presidential term in January 1953.

Others mark July 23, 1953, when all four turbines began to spin, sending electricity to Bonneville Power Administration transmission lines, down to the Flathead Valley and all the way to Portland, Oregon. Our local electric grid is an integral part of the system stretching through the Columbia River Basin. The Hungry Horse Dam is one of 31 interconnected Federal Columbia River Power System (FCRPS) dams in the Columbia River Basin and is the highest on the system. Hungry Horse has a capacity of 428 megawatts and provides constant support to the Western Electrical Grid in concert with other FCRPS dams, including its biggest, Grand Coulee with 6,809 megawatts. The 31 federal dams are owned and operated by the Bureau of Reclamation and the US Army Corps of Engineers.

This hydro-powered grid is robust, powering millions of homes and businesses in the Pacific Northwest. However, it’s also extremely sensitive, as are all electric grids. At any moment in time, the grid must provide exactly the amount of electricity requested by those people and businesses – not more and not less. Just a little too much in either direction can cause blackouts.

Hungry Horse Dam Project Superintendent Bill Dykes explains, “Unlike any other form of clean, renewable energy generation, hydropower can respond almost instantly to the needs of the grid and can ramp up or down each unit’s full range within 15 seconds to help when needed.”

Hydropower at Hungry Horse helps to stabilize the electrical grid – and bring intermittent renewables like solar and wind onto the grid – in several specific ways:

  1. Hungry Horse continues to generate electricity when wind ceases or sun is unavailable.
  2. Each Hungry Horse generator has over 1.5 million pounds of spinning mass, which provides tremendous inertia to support the grid at times of instability.
  3. Hydropower (and other asynchronous generators) creates the “cleanest” sine wave needed for consumers’ electronic equipment, which is not the case with wind or solar generation.

Few of us often consider the many people involved in the complex procedures that keep our lights on, our grocery stores operating, our hospitals healing, and our economy moving forward. However, the amount of civil, mechanical, and electrical engineering and scientific know-how required to keep the grid in balance is astonishing. We encourage you to learn more about your Co-op’s hydropower advantage.

Power Points

Stats and Facts about Hungry Horse Dam and the Columbia River Basin

Map of the Columbia River Basin showing dams downstream of Hungry Horse Dam.
Map of the Columbia River Basin showing dams downstream of Hungry Horse Dam.
  • 1,100 miles — Approximate distance downstream from Hungry Horse Dam to the Pacific Ocean.
  • 20 downstream opportunities— After a drop of water generates power at Hungry Horse Dam, it continues to flow downstream, generating electricity at other hydro projects, some of which are on the FCRPS and provide power to your Co-op.
  • 31 federal dams — The Federal Columbia River Power System includes 31 federal dams. Not all are pictured here.
  • 50% + — Dams provide more than half of the electricity needed to power the Pacific Northwest.
  • 259,000 square miles — The Columbia River Basin covers 259,000 square miles, which is similar to the size of France!

Courtney Stone

All Posts

More Light Reading Newsletter Posts