The Power of Water

Written by: Laurel Kruke, Sustainability Manager

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I was recently up in Northern Arizona, and had some time to explore the great sites in the area. I went into Utah and hiked Zion National Park, walked to Horseshoe Bend, took some beautiful pictures from a few vistas overlooking Lake Powell, and walked around the Glen Canyon Dam and the Carl Hayden Visitor’s Center. I’ve seen dams before, but had not really explored them and how they worked. In today’s blog, I’d like to share some of what I learned about the Glen Canyon Dam and how it provides power to the surrounding areas and states.

The Glen Canyon Dam was completed in 1963; the first hydroelectric power was produced in the plant in fall of 1964. The power plant creates about five billion kilowatt-hours of power each year, which is used to partially fulfill nearby states’ (Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and Nebraska’s) electric needs. The dam and power plant have many different parts and pieces to create electric power from water – the water flows through 1) a pipe (called a penstock) to the 2) turbine, which spins and rotates a part of the generator called 3) the rotor. The rotor has 4) electromagnets that create an electrical charge as they spin around the 5) stator, which is fitted with copper wire coils. As the copper wire coils and the electromagnets create an electrical charge, it becomes alternating current (AC power), which is the electricity we need to fulfill our everyday electricity needs. This electricity then goes to the 6) transformer, which increases the voltage of the electricity generated, and sends that electricity along 7) transmission lines until it joins the electrical grid. The Carl Hayden Visitor’s Center has some great educational displays explaining how the process works; here is a photo of the display that depicts what I described above.

How does the Glen Canyon Dam and Power Plant create electricity from flowing water from the Colorado River? This image at the Carl Hayden Visitor’s Center explains. Photo by Laurel Kruke.

While the Glen Canyon Dam is a great source of renewable energy from hydropower, there are some environmental impacts seen by the region because of the dam’s construction. The dam was created to manage and harness the flow of the Colorado River, slowing the natural flow of the river and creating a reservoir (Lake Powell). This mitigated river flow means that sediment that used to make its way into the Grand Canyon via the Colorado River is no longer flowing freely downstream, which has changed the make-up of the water, transformed the land formations in the Grand Canyon, and altered habitats for native fish and other water species. With the help of scientists, the Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the National Park Service have studied the environmental impacts of the dam, and have issued Environmental Impact Statements to guide the dam’s operation. See details of the latest Long-Term Experimental and Management Plan, released in 2016, here.

The Glen Canyon Dam provides much needed clean, renewable energy to the southwest region, but the man-made structure has also dramatically changed the natural landscape. Understanding the use, operation, and management of the dam and its surrounding area can ensure that the lake, natural recreation areas, and the power produced by the dam can sustain and be enjoyed for many generations.