HDR’s Work on Major Hydropower and Pumped Storage Projects Across the Nation
September 14, 2020
HDR is an engineering, architectural, environmental, and construction services consulting firm that has worked on major infrastructure projects around the world. Its hydropower practice brings together 300 specialists working across North America on major conventional hydroelectric and pumped storage projects. In this interview, Rick Miller, HDR’s senior vice president for hydropower services and a recipient of the hydropower industry’s Kenneth Henwood Award, recognizing his lifetime of industry contributions and passion for hydropower, tells Hydro Leader about the practice’s current projects and current trends in the hydropower industry.
Hydro Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
Rick Miller: I am proud to lead the hydropower and pumped storage practice for HDR. I’ve been in the hydropower business for a little over 40 years. I have a degree in civil engineering from Auburn University and worked nights and weekends to receive my master’s degree from the University of South Carolina while working full time at Duke Energy, which was then called Duke Power. I got involved with hydropower engineering through my work at Duke Power in the late 1970s and then moved on to hydropower operations, grid integration, and dam safety. I eventually served in an asset management operations role, during which time I managed 2,000 megawatts (MW) of pumped storage capacity and six conventional stations. These ranged from 1970s-era facilities with several hundred MW of capacity to small, 1913‑vintage, 1 MW facilities that we lovingly referred to as coffee grinders, and which are still up and running today. In 1991, I was the operations leader for Duke Power when the Bad Creek Pumped Storage Project, the second-to-last major pumped storage project developed in the United States, was commissioned.
Then I moved back to Charlotte, North Carolina, to help plan and implement the modernization of Duke Power’s conventional hydropower fleet in the Carolinas. My colleagues and I successfully accomplished that task over a 15‑year period at a cost of more than $350 million. When Duke Energy acquired assets in South America in 1999, I became the director of operations in Brazil, where it had several thousand MW of conventional hydropower. I lived there for 3½ years, handling all the operations, engineering, health and safety issues, and integration with the national grid operator, which is located in Brazil’s capital, Brasilia.
Through some buyouts and transitions with Duke Energy and its unregulated subsidiaries, I left in 2003 to help start up a new company. I worked in a support role with John Devine, Jim Lynch, John Tarbell, and Ed Luttrell to create the framework of Devine Tarbell & Associates. It was an employee-owned hydropower consulting firm for engineering, regulatory, and environmental services—the proverbial three-legged stool business model, with all the services the nonfederal owner of a hydropower asset needs. It was incredibly exciting to participate in the management buyout of a small but focused team concentrating on the hydropower industry and to build a business that provided jobs, opportunities, and a bright future for the staff, of whom there were 120 when we started.
I rose to become the CEO of the firm, and we decided to join HDR in December 2008. We’ve been a part of HDR now for over 10 years. It’s been a great fit: We brought our hydropower practice to HDR, while HDR has brought broader capabilities to us with regard to wind and solar energy, power delivery, and thermal power. Joining HDR also allowed us access to an integrated power program that also leverages right-of-way and strategic communications capabilities.
I was also president of the National Hydropower Association for a 15‑month period in 2008–2009. I walked the halls of Congress and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) every 3 weeks, trying to promote a rational approach to energy policy for our nation and to advocate for a proven carbon-free energy technology.
Hydro Leader: Please tell us about HDR’s hydropower practice and its history.
Rick Miller: We offer the full range of engineering, environmental sciences, and regulatory services in our core offices across the United States. This includes civil, structural, hydromechanical, electrical, geotechnical, hydraulics, and hydrology engineering. Hydroelectric units are low-speed, high-mass machines with distinctive characteristics and operational challenges different from those of your typical steam- or gas-fired turbine. Our teams focus on FERC’s approach to dam safety, and we work closely with clients to develop mechanisms that track and ensure strict adherence to all dam safety compliance requirements as outlined in FERC-issued project license articles and other documents. We also have the environmental expertise, covering a wide range of disciplines, to meet all planning, permitting, and resource analysis needs. Our team includes aquatics, fisheries, terrestrial, and wildlife biologists who are integrated with our engineers during relicensings, feasibility studies, and other efforts to analyze the resource effects of a hydropower project. Our practice also has a regulatory specialty capability, with a focus on helping our clients with licensing and permitting strategies and understanding the local and regional complexities of issues from a resource perspective, whether it be fish passage in the Northwest, eel passage in New England, or dissolved oxygen in the Southeast.
We have core offices in all quadrants of the country. In the Northeast (Portland, Maine, and Syracuse, New York), we focus on the FERC relicensing of conventional and pumped storage projects and engineering and dam safety studies, primarily with smaller, older conventional stations; this is where we have a core competency in operations modeling that supports our national practice. Our Southeast team is based in Charlotte, North Carolina, and has strengths in civil/structural and geotechnical engineering. It also has turbine and mechanical balance-of-plant systems specialists in addition to regulatory and environmental scientists. We have a California team in Sacramento that offers the full range of services to clients in the power and irrigation sectors. Our Seattle, Washington, and Portland, Oregon, offices support the federal hydropower fleet and offer specialty services in hydraulic engineering, fisheries science, engineering, and regulatory strategies. We also have hydrogenerator and unit uprate subject-matter experts in Toronto, Canada. Most recently, we’ve expanded our footprint in the upper Midwest with a key water resources/civil works hire in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Our pumped storage practice has centers of excellence in Charlotte, Seattle, and Minneapolis. Our asset management team is based in the Pacific Northwest and also has specialists in each office to support modernization planning and strategies for reinvesting in these aging but highly valued assets.
HDR not only supports clients with existing hydropower fleets but also works across the country to help expand their portfolios of pumped storage, which is the largest proven grid-scale storage technology in the world. We’re supporting teams from firms like Dominion Energy, which is working to advance its project in southwestern Virginia, or developers in the West that are trying to participate in the volatile energy markets by providing the storage necessary to integrate wind and solar power while preserving a stable, reliable grid.
Hydro Leader: Please tell us more about some of your current pumped storage projects.
Rick Miller: A number of owner-operators are recognizing that they need greater flexibility in their energy portfolios. We are seeing a shift from a developer-driven market to a market in which existing owner-operators are moving in a structured, stepwise manner through the lengthy process of licensing, concept studies, prefeasibility studies, and preliminary engineering. For example, we have been assisting Dominion Energy with its Tazewell Hybrid Energy Center Pumped Storage Project for about 3 years. We started by helping identify potential sites in southwestern Virginia; a site in Tazewell County was ultimately selected by Dominion, and a preliminary permitwas filed. It is exciting to help advance the preliminary engineering for a pumped-storage project that stands to have a tremendous positive effect on economic development and to sustainably support the grid.
We’re also supporting the Goldendale Pumped Storage Project, located in the Columbia Gorge in Washington State, a closed loop project which is being developed by Klickitat Public Utility District in collaboration with National Grid and Rye Development and is currently in the regulatory and preliminary engineering phases.
Our practice has also been assisting clients with modernizing their existing fleets. We’ve been supporting Southern Company (both Alabama Power and Georgia Power), Tacoma Power, and other clients in North America with long-term asset management and capital investment planning, similar to the aforementioned Duke Power fleetwide modernization that occurred from 1993 to 2007.
Hydro Leader: What trends and new technologies do you see in the industry?
Rick Miller: The focus on a low-carbon energy future is creating renewed interest in hydropower and in the value of existing assets. When you include the federal fleet, hydropower in the United States represents approximately 100 gigawatts (GW) of reliable, flexible, low- or zero-carbon energy generation. That 100 or more GW of installed assets includes 22 GW of pumped storage, which enables the integration of greater amounts of wind and solar power into the grid. Today, there is greater interest in getting away from carbon, decommissioning coal, and moving to a low-carbon future (or a zero-carbon future, in some states); the debate is over whether natural gas is going to be a bridging strategy or not.
We’re also seeing technologies designed to mitigate the effects of existing hydropower assets. For example, we are assisting clients with dissolved oxygen mitigation strategies, which were developed by the Tennessee Valley Authority more than 20 years ago to introduce air into the discharge from a turbine and improve fishery water quality. There are also improvements in fishery habitat, including biologically smarter, nature-like fishways for fish passage. As a result of the ongoing increase in relicensing activities, we’re seeing a lot of attention in the industry in modernizing fleets for a more sustainable future and addressing some of the challenges inadvertently created by projects from the 1950s and 1960s.
We are also seeing advancements in pumped storage technology, including variable-speed capability, which was originally developed in Japan and applied in Asia and in select projects in Europe. Variable-speed technology offers the ability to provide frequency regulation and ramping services to the grid when operators are pumping or absorbing excess electrons in the pump mode. That’s exactly what I think California and other regions with significant solar penetration need. They have periods of excess energy production from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. and still need frequency regulation and load-following capability. For typical technologies like a combustion turbine to provide that essential reliability service, they have to be generating and putting electrons on the grid, which inadvertently contributes to the oversupply of electrons on the grid. A variable-speed pump turbine, on the other hand, can absorb those excess electrons and reallocate them or store them in the form of water so that they can be deployed when demand is at its peak, and it can provide frequency and speed variation while doing so. Many of the pumped storage projects that are currently in the planning and permitting stages are considered to be closed-loop facilities, defined generally as facilities that cause little to no change to existing surface and groundwater flows because their reservoirs are not situated on natural waterways, lakes, wetlands, or other natural surface water features. This results in minimal effect on surface water resources or aquatic and fisheries habitats.
Another key industry trend is adding power at nonpowered dams, irrigation drops, and diversions. There are over 80,000 dams in this country, but only a little more than 3 percent of them have actual power plants. Adding a powerhouse to an existing dam has its challenges, but it is an attractive prospect, since much of the civil infrastructure already exists and the conversion causes few, if any, incremental environmental effects. It’s a proven technology, but it’s not inexpensive.
Hydro Leader: What should every entity that has a hydropower facility or that is considering a hydropower project know about HDR?
Rick Miller: The HDR team has been committed to hydropower for over 40 years, and we’re in it for the long haul, just like our clients. We provide the full range of services for the life cycle of asset ownership, including engineering, regulatory support, dam safety, and environmental sciences. HDR is the one-stop shop for all these services. We have a great team and excellent leadership across the country. We care about our clients, and we care about each other. It’s a remarkable team to be a part of, and I’m honored to be have the opportunity to lead it.
Rick Miller is HDR’s senior vice president for hydropower and pumped storage services. Rick can be contacted at Rick.Miller@hdrinc.comor (704) 248‑3686. For more on HDR’s hydropower services and experience, visit www.hdrinc.com/markets/ power-energy/hydropower.