Once Upon A Time at GRDA: The “pump back” experiment

An aerial of GRDA's Salina Pumped Storage Project, on the Saline Creek arm of Lake Hudson.

It was the mid 1960s and the Grand River Dam Authority was looking for more power sources. For over 20 years, Pensacola Dam – Oklahoma’s first hydroelectric facility – had been producing abundant, reliable electricity for GRDA customers across Northeast Oklahoma. And down on newly-created Lake Hudson, the smell of new paint was still evident inside the Robert S. Kerr Dam powerhouse, which was also harnessing the power of the Grand River.

Still, more power was needed. Unfortunately, all the acceptable dam sites on the Grand River had been taken (the United States Army Corps of Engineers completed Fort Gibson Dam in 1953) so GRDA leaders had to explore other options. One possible solution? A “pumped storage” facility could possibly be built on the Saline Creek arm of Lake Hudson.

Generating facilities like these had been established for many years in Europe, but in the 1960s, only two had been built in the United States (although many utilities were giving them a closer look).  For GRDA, which knew only hydroelectricity at that time, the option looked promising. Though opponents of the project claimed it was “experimental” and that it would “break the Authority” financially, the GRDA Board moved ahead with building plans.

As soon as preliminary designs were made, GRDA filed an application with the Federal Power Commission for the “Salina Pumped Storage Project” license, on June 11, 1965. Soon after, GRDA was building an earth and rock dam (185 feet tall) in Chimney Rock Hollow, southeast of Salina, to create the reservoir (no known as W.R. Holway Reservoir) for the project. Meanwhile, crews were also blasting away a section of hillside to make way for the powerhouse and penstocks (piping from the reservoir to the hydroelectric generators). Phase 1 was completed in 1968. In 1971, three more pump/turbine generators were added.

It didn’t “break” GRDA. Truth is, the facility’s ability to pump water uphill from Lake Hudson into the upper Holway Reservoir is essentially like recharging a battery.  The water in the upper reservoir is potential energy that can be used for generation at a moment’s notice. In fact, the “pump back” (as the locals call it) has provided abundant power for GRDA customers for over 40 years now.

Of course, GRDA would go on to construct the Coal Fired Complex (early 1980s) and later, purchase an interest in a natural gas-fired generation plant (2008). However, in the mid 1960s, when the utility was trying to keep up with growing customer demands, the pumped storage project was an experiment worth trying. And today? The facility’s role in the GRDA system proves everyday that the experiment was a success.

Headquartered in Vinita, GRDA is Oklahoma’s state-owned electric utility; fully funded by revenues from electric and water sales instead of taxes. Directly or indirectly, GRDA’s low-cost, reliable; electricity serves nearly 500,000 homes in Oklahoma and stretches into 75 of 77 counties in the state. At no cost to Oklahoma taxpayers, GRDA also manages 70,000 surface acres of lakes in the state, including Grand Lake, Lake Hudson and the W.R. Holway Reservoir. Today, GRDA’s 500 employees continue to produce the same “power for progress” that has benefited the state for 75 years.
– Justin Alberty
GRDA Corporate Communications Director

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This article is part of the GRDA Power For Progress series.