Now that Coleman Smith has been Power Manager at Grand Coulee Dam for a year, the Forum decided to stop by and see how things are going.

“Just great,” said Coleman. “The area fits with the rural lifestyle that reminds of where I grew up, which was Alabama.” Not a surprise, then, that the Auburn Tigers, his alma mater, is clearly on display in his office.

And how does a gentleman from the south find his way to eastern Washington? “I got a degree in electrical engineering from Auburn, then went to work for the air force for 12 years and the navy for seven years. The last eight years has been with the Bureau of Reclamation.”

With his wife Lauren, who he met and married while at Auburn, the journey has taken them to Virginia, Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming and Washington. “All of these places have been good to us as we raised our family.”

“Now we’re empty nesters enjoying hiking, camping, backpacking and the occasional fishing trip. Washington has all of that and then some, so it’s a great fit.”

The job of power manager of the largest dam in North America keeps Coleman very busy. The Grand Coulee Dam Third Power Plant Overhaul Project is about two years into a 10 – 15 year effort. When done, the turbine and generators of six units will be modernized. At an estimated cost of about $650 million dollars, it’s a big job.

“Right now,” said Coleman, “we’re finishing up unit 24. With the lessons learned, we expect to be able to apply better processes that will make overhauling the next ones faster. It’s a bit like remodeling your kitchen, until you tear into it you don’t necessarily know what you’ll find.”

In addition to the need to replace aging infrastructure, big benefits of the overhaul include increased generating capacity and efficiency. The three units that currently have an electrical generating capacity of 600 MW each have their turbines replaced to increase their generating capacity to 770 MW each. Further, there is the increased efficiency of the units. These efficiency gains translate into increasing power output by as much as 2 percent. In practical terms, that’s about 84 additional megawatts of electricity, or enough to power about 63,000 homes.

Looking forward, Coleman sees efficiency gains at hydropower projects and implementation of smart grid technologies as being central to meeting the Northwest’s future energy needs. When combined with renewable resources such as wind and continued gains in conservation, he sees a bright future for those interested in maintaining the Northwest’s clean air, low cost electricity, and low carbon footprint status.
The other critical variable that Coleman believes needs to be addressed is the aging workforce. “There’s a big bow wave of retirements working through the system. We need to get new, qualified workers in before the corporate knowledge leaves.”

That’s easier said than done. Although these are excellent wage jobs, the numbers of people graduating from programs with the right credentials is very limited. In addition, although Coleman is comfortable and attracted to the rural scene, others are not. “So it’s both a recruitment and retention problem,” said Coleman.

In an innovative effort to “grow our own,” Grand Coulee Dam is partnering with a Lake Roosevelt High School to allow students to volunteer at the dam as part of taking an engineering class. Students come in once a week to work on projects with engineers, operators, machinists and others to get practical hands on experience. Thinking long term, the hope is some of these students will be part of the next generation operating Grand Coulee Dam.

“We’re making progress on a lot of fronts,” concludes Coleman. “Support and partnerships with the community is very much part of what we value.”