Power grid has ‘secret weapon’ hydroelectric pump inside mountain

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RACCOON MOUNTAIN, Tenn. – The threat of severe weather is always on the minds of those responsible for powering homes and businesses.

Ice storms, tornadoes and lightning can cut power to homes and businesses almost anywhere.

The power grid in the Tennessee Valley has a variety of secret weapons it uses to keep lights on when things go awry.

News 19 met energy specialists inside of a mountain near Chattanooga to talk about the unique hydroelectric pumping station operated there.

The facility was built in the middle of Raccoon Mountain in the 1970s via drilling and dynamite.

It was one of its kind when it was built and still remains unique worldwide.

The Tennessee Valley Authority’s Raccoon Mountain is like a giant battery for the seven state power grid.

That grid powers Huntsville.

Raccooon Mountain can power as many as a million customers within seven minutes if activated.

TVA officials consider it their secret weapon.

“It’s a perfect place,” said Tommy Bonds, Racoon Mountain’s Operations Manager. “We don’t have to worry about any kind of natural disasters, storms, tornadoes, any kind of freeze, ice storms like we just had across the United States. We’re very secure during that time.”

The force of water from a reservoir rushes down into the mountain where giant rotors spin and generate electricity when the grid needs it in emergency situations, and situations where power plants might be partially operating because of maintenance.

“We’re storing energy on top of the mountain in the form of water,” Bonds said. “TVA system loses a unit or needs additional electricity, we’re able to generate by releasing that water down through the mountain back into the Tennessee River, essentially making 1,600 megawatts of electricity.”

The TVA also serves as one of the most powerful economic development engines in the U.S. and helped pull the area it serves out of extreme poverty in the 1930s.

“Before TVA was formed, you couldn’t navigate the rivers in this area,” Bonds said. “They were prone to flooding. TVA has helped control that and make life here in the Valley better for everybody. We talk about sustainability. We can talk about economic development. Those are the things that we’re really known for, serving the people of the valley and just making life better for the people in our region.”

The TVA uses a mix of nuclear, hydroelectric, wind, solar, coal and natural gas to power its grid, making it one of the most diverse power grids in the U.S.

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