The following article by Ben Johnson was published in the September 30, 2014 issue of The Journal and updated on October 15.
Another Hydropower Proposal Emerges
Another hydropower proposal has joined the crowded field of existing and proposed
hydropower facilities vying to divert water away from St. Anthony Falls to create renewable energy.
The controversial proposals highlight the increasingly complicated battle between numerous stakeholders over water use along the central riverfront.
The newest plan is called Symphony Hydro, led by former Northern States Power (NSP) executive Bob Schulte and several anonymous partners. Its plan, submitted to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) on June 26, would place a hydropower plant entirely within the soon-to-be-shuttered Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam.
“I think we’re basically talking about the same water,” Schulte said. “We feel the lock is a better place for the project and … it will have less disturbance to the nearby environment, so yes we feel the project would be beneficial compared to Crown or others, but that’s for FERC to decide.”
Symphony would draw the same amount of water and create the same amount of electricity as Crown, but it would require no tunneling and employ smaller, more advanced equipment. Crown’s proposal, meanwhile, includes boring a 920-foot-long tunnel running underneath the Stone Arch Bridge.
Bill Hawks, who has worked on Crown Hydro for years, said he doesn’t see Symphony as a competitor.
“We don’t look at other proposals as competitors. We feel like we’re neighbors and partners in doing the right thing, which is making green energy,” he said.
Crown amended its proposal last fall after 15 years of bickering with the Park Board and failed political maneuvering, moving it 150 feet north to get it completely off of Park Board property.
In response to Crown’s shift, FERC required it conduct a number of studies requested by various agencies with jurisdiction over the high-profile section of the Mississippi River. Those studies are due by the end of the by the end of September, and if they are not considered adequate by FERC Crown’s license could be revoked.
The US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) operates the lock and dam. It has taken a diplomatic, but unenthusiastic approach to both Crown and Symphony’s proposals.
“Our policy is to cooperate on hydropower development,” said Nan Bischoff, a FERC coordinator with USACE. “We try to make way for things that make sense, but sometimes they don’t. There’s an awful lot of demand for a limited amount of water.”
The lock and dam will officially close either at the end of this shipping season or early next spring in an attempt to halt the spread of Asian carp, so any approved hydropower proposal would have to include extensively vetted safeguards against the spread of invasive species.
An aerial map of proposed and existing hydropower facilities along the Central Riverfront — map by Ben Johnson
Pillsbury A-Mill’s revival and Xcel’s increase
On the eastern bank of the Mississippi River a third, smaller hydropower proposal is working its way through the federal approval process. Pillsbury A-Mill Artists’ Lofts developer Dominium wants to rehabilitate the historic tunnels that used to power the Pillsbury flour mill to provide electricity for residents at the Artists’ Lofts.
The A-Mill hydropower project is on a tight deadline because Dominium plans to use historic and low-income tax credits to help finance it. The project is scheduled to be fully occupied in 2015, so any building improvements eligible for tax credits need to be completed by the end of the 2015.
Dominium’s timeline shows it submitting its final application to FERC in November and receiving approval next March. Construction would begin immediately after receiving approval.
The A-Mill project is five times smaller than the Crown and Symphony projects, and 20 times smaller than Xcel Energy’s Hennepin Island plant, which is the only operational hydropower facility in the area right now.
Xcel completed upgrades to all of the plant’s turbines and generators in 2013, and as part of that upgrade it received permission to increase the maximum amount of water it can draw from the river (and away from the falls) by about eight percent.
‘Who will save the falls?’
Xcel’s existing plant and all of the proposed hydropower facilities near St. Anthony Falls take away water that would otherwise come crashing over the falls’ concrete spillway.
Each project draws water from pools above the falls and sends it through a series of pipes (called penstocks), spinning turbines that power generators before flowing back into the river at the bottom of the falls. One reason St. Anthony Falls draws so much hydropower interest is that its 50-foot drop significantly increases the amount of power that can be generated.
“A 50-foot drop is a very good-sized drop; that’s certainly part of the attraction. I know hydro facilities that work with as little as a five-foot drop,” said Schulte from Symphony Hydro.
The inescapable fact that hydropower takes water away from the falls makes riverfront advocates and downtown boosters nervous. No one wants the estimated two million annual central riverfront visitors staring at a dry slab of concrete instead of a waterfall when water levels are low, and there’s also a growing population of riverfront residents to consider.
“Generally speaking I’m for hydropower, but I’m not for it at the expense of what is perhaps the number one attraction in our entire city, which is St. Anthony Falls,” said Ward 3 City Council Member Jacob Frey. “If it turns into a concrete slab instead of what should be the centerpiece of our city, that creates an economic problem, a livability problem and I think it detracts from what should be a major highlight of any visit to Minneapolis.”
Frey’s comments came at a community meeting in early September entitled “Who’ll Save the Falls?” where a number of politicians — Frey, state Reps. Phyllis Kahn and Raymond Dehn, Park Board Commissioner Scott Vreeland and a staff member from US Rep. Keith Ellison’s office — lined up to hear from and reassure concerned residents that the new hydropower projects will not be allowed to draw the falls dry.
Xcel’s current license allows it to draw water until there’s 100 cubic feet per second (cfs) flowing over the falls — a trickle, according to Park Board Commissioner Vreeland.
A view of St. Anthony Falls from the Stone Arch Bridge — photo by Ben Johnson
A future compromise
When Xcel Energy received approval for its plant upgrade in 2011 FERC required it to perform an “aesthetic flow study” that will be used to determine when hydropower plants will have to stop drawing water away from the falls. Xcel has until the end of 2016 to take pictures of the falls at seven different water levels ranging from 100 cfs to 2,000 cfs and submit them for public review.
After a public comment period, FERC will determine a new minimum amount of water hydropower plants must allow to travel over the falls.
“Certainly we already know and I think it’s well known that the public will pick a higher number than Xcel will,” said Matt Miller, an Xcel Energy hydropower licensing specialist. “The bottom line is that anything over 100 cfs will ultimately take away generation from [the Hennepin Island plant], I think that’s how we’ll look at it from the company standpoint.”
Years ago, when it was negotiating with Crown Hydro the Park Board passed a resolution stating it wants to maintain a flow of at least 2,000 cfs over the falls.
Representatives from Symphony and the A-Mill project say they are completely open to maintaining a healthy flow over the falls.
“We’ll have 251 apartments looking over the falls, so it’s in our best interest to make sure everything looks good,” said Neal Route, a staff associate with Dominium.
Symphony Hydro’s Schulte lived in Minneapolis or its surrounding suburbs for 30 years before moving to Raleigh, N.C. to start his own energy consulting business.
“I’ve walked that area many times and we understand the view is important,” he said. “We don’t want the spillway to run dry.”
The 2014 daily cfs flow compared to the median daily flow over the last 82 years at the nearest river gage in Anoka
Ironically, hand-wringing over the spillway running dry comes during a summer in which the Mississippi River rose to uncommonly high water levels.
Bischoff, from US Army Corps of Engineers, said earlier this summer the lock had to be opened to ease flooding concerns for only the sixth time since it was finished in 1963.
The Xcel plant shuts down when flows get above 35,000 cfs, which happened frequently over the last few months.
“It wasn’t so much that we saw record flows, it’s just that they were consistently high enough to keep us shut down, which was unusual,” said Miller.
Miller noted that the high flows have also prevented Xcel from obtaining pictures for the aesthetic study, which looms as the biggest piece in deciding how much water should be reserved for the falls.
“The good thing is that people are engaged,” said Rep. Dehn at the “Who’ll Save the Falls?” meeting. “When people aren’t engaged that’s when they wake up one day and say ‘wait a second, who the hell said they can do that?’”