Major Hydroelectric Power Station Failures

The Edersee Dam in Germany.
The Edersee Dam in Germany.

Electricity produced from water is called hydroelectricity. About 16% of the world’s electricity needs are provided for by hydroelectricity. Data also shows that 70% of the world’s renewable energy is accounted for by hydroelectricity as well. For the next 25 years, experts speculate that this percentage of renewable energy will grow by 3.1% every year. Hydroelectric stations, however, experience problems from time to time that may halt operations at best or destroy property and cause loss of human life at worst. The worst case scenarios still happen despite all the safety checks put in place. Forms of damage may include damaging of the turbine required for power production, a fault in the reservoir walls, and others. Some problems are easily rectified while others take years and unimaginable costs to repair.

Major Hydroelectric Power Station Failures

Oroville Dam

This dam, located in the US state of California, is the most recent one to have a major failure in the world. The failure happened last year on February 27, 2017, during the rainy season which was the wettest winter that California has experienced in a century. The increased flow from the Feather River as a result of the rains caused the California Department of Water Resources to open the spillway to relieve the load on the dam. More storms caused the spillway to be opened further but the engineers detected major erosion in the foundation concrete. Repairing the erosion was impossible without compromising the safety of personnel and equipment. Eventually, about 180,000 people had to be evacuated pending repairs which will cost more than $400 million. Power production was halted briefly but it shortly resumed with two of the six turbines being used soon after. The idea was to use the power plant to ease the strain on the damaged spillway.

Edersee Dam

Located in the north of Hesse, Germany, this dam is among the first dams to have a major failure when it happened on May 17, 1943, during World War II. On that fateful day, British Lancaster bombers, during Operation Chastise, breached the walls of the dam in the morning. The resulting breach on the dam wall was a massive 230 feet wide with a high of 72 feet. Water poured out of the breach at an extremely fast rate which created a flood which was between 20 and 26 feet deep all the way to lower Eder, Fulda, and Weser. About 70 lives were lost that day.

Möhne Reservoir

Also known as the Moehne Reservoir, this is an artificial lake located some 28 miles from Dortmund in Germany. Like the Edersee Dam, this dam also experienced breaches during World War II on May 17, 1943, during Operation Chastise. The British had come up with special kinds of bombs that could overcome the protective netting in the water. The resulting damage blew a hole of about 252 feet by 72 feet in the dam. Like Edersee, the bombing resulted in a flood which had a higher casualty number of 1,579 people with 1,026 of the causalities being foreign prisoners. The hardest hit area was Neheim-Hüsten which had a death toll of more than 800 people where 526 of the dead were Russian women. Accounts describe the resulting damage to the power plant turbines as a complete erasure which led to a standstill in the industry. By September 23, 1943, the dam had already been repaired.

Vajont Dam

The Vajont Dam is a dam in Erto e Casso in the northern region of Venice, Italy. Currently, the dam is no longer in use although it is among the tallest in the world. The failure at this dam, by all accounts, could have been avoided were it not for the government suppressing evidence of a landslide and ignoring the signs and recommendations. Prior to the collapse, experts had already advised that water should leave a distance of at least 25 feet from the crest. This advice was ignored and water was filled beyond that. Attempts to empty the dam were too late and on October 9, 1963, the inevitable happened. A massive landslide destroyed the dam in just 45 seconds and the wave went on ahead to wipe out the villages in the Piave valley including Pirago, Villanova, Faè, and Longarone. After accounting had be done, it was discovered that at least 2,000 people had perished. About 350 families were totally wiped out with survivors losing loved ones and property. The dam, surprisingly, only had minor damages with the remaining structure still there today.

Mangla Dam

The Mangla Dam is a multiuse dam located in Kashmir, Pakistan and is the seventh largest globally. Primarily, the dam was constructed in order to satisfy the water needs of the surrounding community. In addition, it was also constructed to produce electricity as well as controlling the floods during the wet Monsoon season. On December 5, 1971, during the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War, the dam was damaged after a bombing raid conducted by the Indian Air Force. The bombing happened despite the international convention that water reservoirs were not to be targeted during wars. The power plant and the entire project had to be shut down.

Srisailam Dam

There are several other dams from all around the world that have had major failures in the past. For example, there is the Srisailam Dam of India which had a failure in 1998. Poor quality of construction led to the flooding of the underground powerhouse leading to the submergence of almost everything. Power generation had to be halted for a year until repairs were done. The same dam had complications again in 2009. The main causes for the second time failure were poor operations of the reservoir and an unprecedented flood level which again caused a submergence and stoppage of power production for a year.

Banqiao Dam

Another dam with devastating losses is China’s Banqiao Dam back in 1975. The resulting failure led to the death of 26,000 people dead as a result of flooding. Another 145,000 people died from the consequent famine and accompanying epidemics with at least 11 million people left without homes. The damage was so extensive that people have called it a 1 in 2000 years flood.


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