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How it Works: Smith Mountain Lake’s Hydroelectric Dam

Smith Mountain Lake is considered the recreation capital of Southwest Virginia, welcoming tourists and catering to the approximately 22,000 residents who call it home. But did you know the two-dam project that created it is an engineering marvel that produces clean energy for the surrounding region?

SML was created in the 1960s when Appalachian Power constructed the Smith Mountain Pumped Storage Project to dam the Roanoke River, erecting two dams for the primary purpose of creating hydroelectricity.

The system generates power by passing water stored in the upper reservoir (Smith Mountain Lake) through massive turbine generators and discharging it into the lower reservoir (Leesville Lake) where it’s stored and then pumped back to SML to be reused.

Water flowing from Smith Mountain Lake into the lower reservoir of Leesville Lake

According to Appalachian Power, there is no set schedule for operation. Electricity is usually generated when demand is high, and water from the lower reservoir is pumped back when demand is low. The process can change hourly depending on demand, which is why SML water levels fluctuate.

To learn more about the process, the history of the region and fascinating details of how the dams were created, plan a visit to the Joseph H. Vipperman Visitors Center in Sandy Level. It’s free and open year-round. For hours of operation, visit

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