The Case for Tapoco
Alcoa needs "it" to continue to provide over 2000 jobs in eastern Tennessee, and to continue competitive domestic aluminum production.
"It" is the Tapoco Project, a series of 4 dams on the Little Tennessee and Cheoah Rivers in Western North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee. They are privately owned and operated by Alcoa Power Generating, Inc. (APGI), a wholly owned subsidiary of Alcoa, Inc., the world’s leading producer of aluminum. Smelting aluminum requires a lot of electricity, and Alcoa uses the project to supply some of the electricity to operate the Alcoa, Tennessee smelting operation. On average, the project supplies 1.6 million megawatt-hours to the operation a year, about half (1) of the total power required. The remaining power is purchased from the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).
Since the dams are privately owned, they are licensed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), as Project Number 2169. The original license was issued in 1955, and expires February 28, 2005. Thus, APGI is currently conducting the preliminary steps to renew the license. Not surprisingly, they are encountering some vocal opposition to the continued operation of the dams. In my opinion, these opponents are taking a very narrow view of the project for some shortsighted objectives. In particular, the Tennessee Clean Water Network (TCWN) has on their web page (2) a copy of a letter sent to APGI, Tapoco Project, signed by representatives of a coalition of recreational or environmental interests, taking APGI to task for eliminating consideration of removal of the dams as an option. Again, in my opinion, this would seem to indicate that this group is being as unreasonable as they claim APGI is being. Why would APGI even consider shutting down the project? As they point out in their White Paper on Dam Removal, loss of the electricity the project provides would make the Alcoa, Tennessee operation economically unsustainable, resulting in its shutdown, and the loss of over 2000 jobs. Not to mention it would cost Alcoa over 1 billion dollars to destroy the dams. The white paper itself shows APGI studied the situation and rejected the option. That is all they are required to do in the re-licensing process.
The primary target of this group appears to be the Santeetlah Dam (3). This dam diverts the Cheoah River to the Santeetlah Powerhouse on the Little Tennessee River. This "dewaters", as they say, the Cheoah River for a distance of approximately 9 miles (4). One of the other dams, Calderwood, is also a diversion dam, and "dewaters" approximately one mile of the Little Tennessee River. This one appears to be less of a target, presumably because the recreational possibilities are less here, and because, since Calderwood can produce over twice the power of Santeetlah, it would be more vigorously defended. Santeetlah produces the least amount of power of the group, true, but let's look at this for a moment. Even though the incoming flow to the lake averages about 500 cubic feet per second (cfs), the diversion pipeline/tunnel can handle almost 900 cfs. At full flow, this is good for 45 megawatts. Extrapolating from the fact that Cheoah can produce 110 megawatts at approximately 8100 cfs, we can assume that this 900 cfs will produce about another 12 megawatts at Cheoah Dam, making a total of 57. That is much more than the 50 MW (at 11,460 cfs!) from Chilhowee. It can't be sustained indefinitely, of course, but that is what hydro plants do best: they provide "peak" power... when the demand is highest, they can be spun up very quickly to provide power when it is needed the most, and do it cleanly, from a renewable resource. Since Santeetlah produces its power from a relatively small flow of 900 cfs, it can be argued that it is the MOST productive of the developments, not the least. In summary, it is evident that Santeetlah Dam and Powerhouse are vital parts of the project.
On the other hand, the property owners around Santeetlah Lake obviously object vehemently to the removal of the dam. Instead, they want power generation from Santeetlah Dam held to a minimum to reduce the fluctuations of level on the lake.
In both cases these people are advocating a very selfish approach to the continued operation of the project. Again, the average flow into Santeetlah Lake is about 500 cfs. On the TCWN web page, it is indicated this is not enough for rafting. Another report indicates it is too much for fishing. In other words, the dam needs to be there to control the flow for recreational purposes (5), and, with the dam, the releases to create the desired flow can be scheduled, i.e. on the weekends, when more people could take advantage of it. Without the dam, you have only the seasonal variation, and the occasional, random "high water" event. At Santeetlah Lake, leaving it at full pool eliminates the flood control capacity created by drawing the lake down in fall and winter, in anticipation of spring rains and runoff. It also, of course, reduces the possibility of scheduled releases for recreational use downstream.
And why is the need for the electricity from this project brushed aside? The need for domestic aluminum production should be obvious (6). Yet another source (7) stated that "aluminum is smelted using electric currents, rather than coal or oil fired furnaces like other primary metals". So Alcoa should be burning even more fossil fuel with the accompanying pollution? Where is the environmental advantage in that? Hydropower is the only real viable renewable resource on line today. With the hydropower from this project, Alcoa can, cleanly (except for what power is purchased from TVA (8)), provide the aforementioned 2000+ jobs, producing a strategically vital resource. Bashing big corporations as evil, profit-mongering entities is popular, but completely out of place here. Personally, I find APGI more than generous in (tentatively (9)) considering the sacrifice of a small amount of generation capability in order to provide recreational opportunities, at conveniently scheduled times even. I'm sorry, but I find the demand that Alcoa sacrifice its Alcoa, TN operation so that a few rafters can enjoy the Cheoah River (and only after a good rain!) is ludicrous. And it has to be remembered that every megawatt not generated with hydro because of a recreational release is going to have to generated with something else, almost certainly fossil fuel with the accompanying pollution and higher cost.
As for the Santeetlah Lake property owners, you knew or should have known when you bought the property that the lake is privately owned, and was created for the purpose of generating power, with accompanying fluctuations in level. Complaining about it is like moving next to an airport, then complaining about the noise. Alcoa has already given up the seasonal 50 foot drawdown, instead limiting it to 20 feet, and giving up the additional 40,000 acre feet of storage capacity that could have generated power at two plants. I find that more than reasonable.
And the environmental concerns? Cheoah Dam was closed in 1919, Santeetlah in 1928, and Calderwood in 1930. Chilhowee followed in 1957. The newest dam of the bunch is 45 years old! Right, wrong, or indifferent, any environmental impacts these dams made has already been done, and stabilized. Tearing the dams out will just cause environmental upheaval all over again. And the Little Tennessee River is never going back to a free flowing state, because of TVA's Fontana Dam upstream, and Tellico Dam downstream. TVA was created for the purpose of taming the Tennessee River and its tributaries and reduce as much as possible the periodic flooding caused by this river system, and to provide for navigation on the Tennessee River. The TVA dams are exempt from FERC licensing, and you can rest assured that they are not going anywhere. In fact, I would not be surprised if TVA stepped in and took over the Tapoco Dams if APGI is denied re-licensing (10). An absolute worst case scenario: APGI is denied re-licensing, Alcoa, Tennessee shuts down, putting 2000+ people out of work, TVA takes over the dams, halting their destruction...everybody loses (except TVA).
As an aside, Alcoa gave TVA the site for Fontana Dam in 1941 (11). I imagine they had little choice: because of the war effort at the time, the electricity from Fontana Dam was considered vital to National Defense. Even if Alcoa tried to build a dam at the current Fontana site, I doubt they could have afforded the 24/7 production schedule that TVA was able to maintain with tax dollars, and the government would almost certainly have taken over the project. (Besides, Alcoa was busy cranking out aluminum for the war effort.) Again, right, wrong, or indifferent, the Little Tennessee River would have been dammed at Fontana. Personally, I think the resulting hydropower was a fair trade. Obviously there are other opinions, but I think singling out APGI to free up such a limited amounted of recreational opportunities is a miscarriage of the system. I further believe the Tapoco Project should be exempted from FERC licensing, since they are bracketed by TVA dams, they already coordinate with TVA on flow control through the project, and the distinct possibility that TVA will take over the dams anyway if APGI loses the license. As long as APGI maintains the integrity, functionality, and safety of the dams, work with other interests to make REASONABLE attempts to promote certain recreational aspects on the project lakes and rivers, and continue to support environmental stewardship throughout the project area, why should they be subjected to the expense and disruption caused by the re-licensing process?

Finally, about the coalition's request for funding from APGI to provide counsel for the opposition... do I really need to comment on that?
Pat Kelley, Lawrenceville, GA
All facts and figures about the Tapoco Project, especially flow data and power capabilities, were taken from the either "Scoping Document 1" or "White Paper on Dam Removal", both available on APGI's Tapoco website.
(1) The "half" was stated (I don't know where they got their information) in an article attributed to the Asheville Citizen Times (no date given), reproduced on the TCWN website (next note). I remember seeing something that said 47%, but I have been unable to find it since. This will obviously vary from year to year due to climate variations: it is a safe bet that for the past couple of years its been a lot lower due to the drought. The 1.6 million megawatt hours figure is in the White Paper on Dam Removal.
(2) The Tennessee Clean Water Network website. Updated 3/3/02: The letter has been moved or deleted from the website.
(3) Although the Scoping Document indicated that Chilhowee was the subject of "most of the discussion regarding dam removal", Santeetlah is clearly the target of this coalition. They are seeking scheduled releases for rafting, so their concern that removal has been rejected as an option is a little puzzling (see note 5). I suppose in their view if they can't get their releases, then get rid of the dam. There is pressure on Chilhowee from trout fishing interests to "restore some free flowing trout habitat to the lower Little Tennessee River." With TVA's Fontana Dam upstream?? TVA at Fontana is THE controller of flow on the lower Little Tennessee River. Tributaries below Fontana, even the Cheoah River if it were free flowing, are a small percentage of what comes out of Fontana.
(4) The Cheoah River channel is not completely dry. Approximately 2 cfs leaks from the dam, and several tributaries join the river below the dam above the confluence of Cheoah and Little Tennessee Rivers. The "normal" flow at Tapoco Lodge just upstream from the confluence is estimated to be 136 cfs. Similarly, the Little Tennessee channel below Calderwood receives an unknown amount of leakage from the dam.
(5) This conclusion (of mine) resulted from the "Cheoah River Recreation Revised Interim Report", also available on APGI's Tapoco website. It contains the complete results of all the release tests, including fishing and boating. The boating was summarized on the TCWN website, in particular: "Flow 2 - 670 cfs = 4.15 feet (on the Bearpen Gap gauge) - unacceptable for rafts, undesirable for hard boats." The fishing tests indicated that 670 cfs was way too much for good fishing, the arguable upper limit appears to be around 300 cfs (fishing tests were only conducted at 75, 100, 670 and 950 cfs). It is ironic that at the normal average flow, the river is good only for looking at! (It is a very pretty river.) Updated 3/3/02: The report is no longer available, although they still have a broken link to it on their website.
(6) In my humble opinion, I think the need for domestic aluminum production is obvious. Some people are going to disagree: to them I would point out our dependence on non-domestic oil, and the potential problem that creates in a world that is not entirely stable politically. Or maybe they think we just don't need aluminum, period. I have not done a detailed study, but I see aluminum in use everywhere...even to make canoes!
(7) The International Rivers Network, working paper #2, titled "The Relationship Between Primary Aluminum Production and the Damming of World Rivers", executive summary, available from their website. The focus of the summary is not actually the replacement of electricity with fossil, but the implication is there. Their focus is, apparently, reduction of the amount of aluminum produced and consumed, and, therefore, less need for hydropower and dams. The paper itself is for sale for 20 bucks... I declined.
(8) From TVA's 2000 Annual Report (this is a 1.5 meg file), the power generated by TVA for FY2000 (ending 9/30) was 5.77% Hydro, 62.68% Fossil, 30.87% Nuclear, and 0.68% Combustion Turbine. 2000 was a bad year for hydro because of the continuing drought in the area; the same report lists the winter net dependable capacity of hydro at 19% of TVA's generating capabilities.
(9) Currently there are no scheduled releases. In the Scoping Document, there are several alternatives to the Cheoah River flow management presented, one of which is "to provide scheduled releases for spring, summer, or fall recreational boating." APGI's base proposal is to continue to operate the project as it does now (no releases), but this inclusion indicates they consider some releases as a "reasonable alternative".
(10) The possibility of TVA takeover is brought up in the White Paper, but "is not considered to be a reasonable alternative" in the Scoping Document. In other words, APGI understandibly does not want to give up the dams, and TVA has no problem with APGI owning the dams, as long as they work with TVA to coordinate flow and flood control downstream, which they do and will continue to do. Interestingly, TVA includes the Tapoco Project in their Winter Net Dependable Generating Capacity due to an Exchange Agreement with the Tapoco Project, renewed in 1994 (from the TVA Annual Report, note 8 above). APGI and TVA have a good working relationship, which I think is a good thing... I'm sure some will see it as a conspiracy. But I think this makes a strong case for the fact that TVA will not let these dams go away, especially Santeetlah due to its flood control capabilities.
(11) From TVA Heritage, available here.
So why does someone from Lawrenceville, GA care about what is going on in the project area? (a) My wife and I have vacationed in the area three times now and are looking forward to more... (b) We are strong proponents of hydropower, especially at existing facilities where the impact from building the dam has already been made... (c) We DO NOT support the view that all big corporations are inherently evil, planet destroying monsters that need to be fought at every turn (there are some problems at times, of course, but those can be addressed as required)... (d) The Tapoco Project itself is what first attracted us back to the area after our first visit (to Fontana Dam)... we see dams as things of beauty and engineering interest. We do NOT advocate just throwing up a dam anywhere, but we do believe EXISTING facilities, in most cases, need to be allowed to continue to provide power, regardless of who owns them.
For the record: we are NOT shareholders of Alcoa, Inc. (not yet, anyway), nor do we have any affiliation with Alcoa or any of its subsidiaries.