Another Benefit of Hydro: Offering Hydro Project Tours

Inviting your customers to visit your hydropower project lets them see for themselves what you do and why you do it.

Tours are great ways to help customers better understand the process for generating and delivering hydropower. What’s more, tours add value to your community outreach, employee relations, and public education strategies.

Getting prepared for a tour

Tacoma Power offers a school program known as “HydroVenture” to help prepare students for hydropower tours. It is free for third- to eighth-graders. Tacoma Power also provides tours for high school students and college engineering students.

The utility promotes the tours in letters mailed to the schools.

On average, Tacoma Power conducts about 25 tours a year. In some cases, a school may receive free bus transportation to a hydro project for a tour, but most often it is the school’s responsibility to transport students.

The tours are designed to help customers understand the process that generates and delivers their electricity. This builds support for our operations and for public power in general.

Before heading out to the hydro projects, Tacoma Power provides HydroVenture lesson plans to teachers that address the following areas:

– The history of hydropower;

– The Nature of Water Power curriculum, provided by the Foundation for Water and Energy Education (FWEE).

The Nature of Water Power and other FWEE lesson plans are available for viewing at;

– “Rivers to Power” video;

– Discussion on salmon, recreation, renewable energy resources, and careers in hydropower; and

– Safety rules for the tour, what to wear, and security issues.

During the HydroVenture classes, students also receive a hydropower notebook for note taking during class sessions and for collecting hydropower-related articles from newspapers, magazines and online sources.

Hosting the tours

The dictionary defines “tour” this way: A journey for business, pleasure, or education often involving a series of stops and ending at the starting point.

At Tacoma Power, hydropower tours “go with the flow” by starting and ending at the river.

Tacoma Power operates seven dams and maintains seven reservoirs. Each tour highlights the historical significance of the river and Tacoma Power’s stewardship of it. Hydropower is clean and renewable thanks to the hydrologic cycle.

The discussion turns to the penstocks and how water travels to the turbine. A diagram on a poster illustrates this so tour participants can get a visual of what’s happening inside the penstock.

The working turbine is not visible, but a visit to the spinning shaft between the turbine and the generator above helps visitors understand the speed needed to spin the magnets (rotor) around the copper wire coils (stator) in the generator causing electrons to travel from atom to atom and generating an electric current.

Students tour Alder Dam on the Nisqually River in Washington state.
Students tour Alder Dam on the Nisqually River in Washington state.

Participants learn that the governor controls the wicket gates, regulating the flow of water and making sure the generator spins at the proper speed.

The control room offers a quiet place to talk about using electricity wisely and to observe and compare the blend of old and new instruments and controls. It is the final leg of the powerhouse visit.

Tacoma Power hydro tours conclude at the top of the dam, where we discuss environmental issues and career opportunities.

The utility reviews the physical properties of the dam to help visitors understand its strength and the type of engineering marvel it truly is.

The seven Es

A tour is a journey and a journey is designed to create emotion. Early explorers embarked on journeys by sailing “the seven seas.”

With Tacoma Power tours, participants are encouraged to sail “the seven Es” to create an emotional bond to hydropower and to answer the following questions:

Electricity – How is electricity generated and what is its relationship to water? How does electricity travel from the powerhouse to its user destination? How can we use electricity wisely?

Engineering – How is a dam constructed and what makes it strong? What technical work is done for the safe operation of a hydropower facility daily?

Economy – What does hydropower mean to a local economy? What does hydropower mean to the U.S. economy? How do dams enhance irrigation, transportation, and our cost of living?

Enlighten – What is hydropower’s role in Tacoma Power’s energy mix and for the needs of the U.S. and the world? What is the federal government’s role in Tacoma Power’s daily operations?

Employment – What jobs and careers are available in hydropower?

Environment – How does hydropower affect fish and wildlife? What measures are taken to ensure that hydropower has a positive role in protecting the water, air and culture?

Empower – How can Tacoma Power customers have an active role in using electricity wisely? And how can they share that information with others?

During tours for schools, HydroVenture students use “treasure hunt” cards with various tour questions.

Some of the questions are from classroom sessions and some questions require observation and listening skills during the tour.

At the conclusion of the tour, the students experience another benefit of hydropower – recreation.

The classes enjoy a picnic at one of the parks operated by Tacoma Power.

The answers to the treasure hunt card are reviewed during lunch and the cards are put in a drawing for fun prizes.

In addition to the qualities listed above, tours give an opportunity to share mission statements and business strategies with the public.

On Tacoma Power tours, adult groups and college students learn through talks about the major responsibilities of the utility’s generation section, including:

– Operating, maintaining, and improving Tacoma Power’s electrical generation plants and recreational parks;

– Ensuring compliance with dam safety, public safety, and emergency action planning regulations for the hydroelectric plants;

– Planning, designing, and coordinating the construction, modernization, and maintenance of generation and plant facilities;

– Maintaining and providing oversight for the operation of fish hatcheries and related facilities;

– Providing management for recreation and wildlife on project lands and reservoirs;

– Ensuring compliance with fisheries, wildlife, public recreation, and cultural resource requirements of existing hydroelectric project operating licenses, associated agreements and management plans;

– Relicensing existing hydro projects, implementing mitigation requirements of new licenses, and coordinating resource needs and requirements with state and federal agencies and Indian tribes;

– Monitoring and implementing compliance measures for environmental regulations for the utility; and

– Providing security planning, guard management, and buildings and grounds maintenance for the utility.

Hydro project tours can help build a bridge to connect customers to the utility, by helping them to understand and appreciate the many benefits of hydro, the work done by your utility, and the task of maintaining the facility for electricity generation today and in the future.

During tours of its hydroelectric projects, Tacoma Power hosts describe the technical work required daily for the safe operation of a hydropower facility, and provide participants opportunities to see and touch various tools used.

– By Randy Stearnes, Communications Officer and Employee Transportation Coordinator for Tacoma Public Utilities

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