Smith Mountain Lake Turns 50 - Part 2: Inside The Dam That Started It All

Smith Mountain Lake, VA - Smith Mountain Lake has certainly grown over the last 50 years, but it wouldn't even be there without the enormous Smith Mountain Lake Dam.

ABC 13 was given special clearance to not only go inside the Smith Mountain Lake dam, but we were also let into areas very few employees are even able to venture into.

At 235 feet high, the Smith Mountain Lake dam is one of the largest and most powerful in American Electric Power's grid.

Power generated at other dams can range between 20 and 80 megawatts. The Smith Mountain Lake Dam generates an astounding 605 megawatts, though.

To get a closer look, ABC 13 went inside, where our crew was given a special class, which ended with us signing papers and officially becoming part of the AEP crew for the day.

Our guide, David Bailey, has years of experience working at and inside the Smith Mountain Lake dam.

Bailey takes us through a maze of hallways, stairs, ladders, and tight doorways. The facility is nothing to mess around with. A sign warns that turbines could start and stop at any time.

"Be very careful right there," Bailey said.

The tools used are huge and heavy. Hanging on a wall, a 40-pound wrench.

The dam has a way of reminding you how powerful it is. In the middle of an interview, we were interrupted by a very loud emission of compressed air. The sudden noise was nothing serious, but was a reminder of how powerful the machinery is.

The equipment is as expensive as it is loud.

"We added unit three in 1980 and it cost $37 million by itself in 1980," Bailey said.

As luck would have it, one of the turbines was being worked on the same week our ABC 13 crew was scheduled to tour the dam. It's something that only happens once every two to three years for repairs.

A narrow, thick, door is our entrance to where 82,000 gallons of water per minute normally rush through, turning the unit, then releasing the water into Leesville Lake below, creating a lot of electricity.

Our ABC 13 crew climbs into the confined space.

"Be careful coming in!" Bailey reminds us.

"This whole thing's [normally] full of water," Bailey explained. "This is a scroll case that's [normally] completely full of water. We have scaffolding in here which will allow us to do cavitation repairs, a nice inspection of the unit."

The pressure of the water coming in, combined with the vacuum of water coming out, create "pops", which eat away at the structure.

Crews fill the gaps much like a dentist fills a cavity.

"This is where you get a lot of cavitation damage, right on this side of the bucket," Bailey shows us with a flashlight.

The dam itself is curved inward into the water, diverting the pressure from the water into the mountains.

The water that leaves Smith Mountain Lake through the dam immediately enters Leesville Lake.

Finally, not water, but air, and a lot of it, is used to lift the turning parts up to reduce friction.

Water from Leesville Lake can actually be reversed and "pulled' back into Smith Mountain Lake by several pumps, especially if AEP sees the need for extra power coming.

The power generated from the SML dam goes into the AEP grid and travels at the speed of LIGHT simply to wherever it's needed the most: whether it's your home, or somewhere in Texas.

With added mandates for green energy coming in 2015, the Smith Mountain Dam Project is already there.

To get to the Smith Mountain Lake Dam, you ride along Route 40 into Franklin and Pittsylvania County.

A lot of the business development so far has been along Route 122, from Westlake to Moneta. Route 40, however is still very rural.

That may be about to change, however.

Franklin County Administrator Rick Huff told ABC 13 there are actually opportunities for further development along Route 40.

"I think we're going to see the southside of the lake begin to develop, and I can envision a town center like Westlake at the Union Hall said of the lake," Huff said. "We've already begun working on that."

The board is seeking input from citizens in those areas already, so stay tuned.