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Heartland Voices: Hydropower Potential

7 years ago | Jun 17, 2014
Sarah HillNelson HV blogSarah Hill-Nelson is co-owner of The Bowersock Mills & Power Company which was originally established by her great, great Grandfather in the late 1800s in Lawrence. She manages the plant in partnership with her father, Stephen Hill. Producing clean, renewable hydropower since 1874, The Bowersock Mills & Power Company is the only operating hydroelectric plant in Kansas. Comprised of 7 hydroelectric turbines, the plant is capable of producing 2.35 MW of renewable, non-polluting electrical power – enough to power nearly 1800 homes! Bowersock is certified as a Low Impact Hydropower Facility, a certification for hydropower projects that have avoided or reduced their environmental impacts pursuant to the Low Impact Hydropower Institute’s criteria.

Sarah Hill-Nelson has a long-standing interest in energy and the environment. She is an avid follower of energy policy and market mechanisms that impact energy development, and was one of the first Kansas energy business leaders to leverage renewable attributes through Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs or Green Tags). Starting in 2008, she and her father Stephen worked together along with an extended team to expand the Bowersock Project. The expanded project includes a new powerhouse and rubber dam installation that have tripled the energy production potential from the existing Bowersock Dam.

Sarah took time out of her busy day to visit with CEP’s Rachel Myslivy about all things hydro. Read on to hear Sarah's unique perspective on energy issues in Kansas.


What are you excited about regarding energy and/or the environment?

For Hydropower, what is really exciting for me is the work people are doing in developing technologies that are very good for incremental hydro. By incremental hydro, I mean adding hydro to already existing dams.  Only 3% of dams in this country actually have hydroelectric power production on them. Dams, very clearly and obviously have an environmental impact.  Many of the dams that we have were built to create and preserve a consistent water supply for people or for agriculture or for flood control. So, to me, the potential to use those existing dams that are already there for other purposes is really exciting. By using existing infrastructure, we could create significant amounts of additional energy in the United States with very little additional environmental impact. What’s going to make that more possible is for these technologies that people are developing for low-head hydro or in-conduit hydro.  For example, a conduit for a city water supply or a conduit for some kind of agricultural irrigation, there are all sorts of technologies under development for generating hydropower for those kinds of very low-head settings. That, to me, is super exciting. I think that there will be a few things that will have to come into place to promote that.

One of the things that interests me is that we have so much money invested in our country to preserve irrigation and drinking water. The infrastructure is expensive and aging. I am excited about the ways private business and government could collaborate together to help preserve the existing infrastructure, possibly involving hydroelectric power. By incorporating hydro into an existing water project, not only do you create a domestic energy resource but you are also bringing in more dollars to maintain existing critical infrastructure.

What are you concerned about regarding energy and/or the environment?

Aging infrastructure. It is a huge burden on our country to maintain this water impoundment and delivery infrastructure that was built up through the 1920s-1940s. We have this this incredibly complex series of dams and waterways. Some of them make less environmental sense than others. My concern is that we have all this money invested in the infrastructure and I’m concerned about the country having the commitment and wherewithal to maintain that in the space of shrinking resources but also in terms of how things will change in terms of weather and climate.

At Bowersock, we did all of our forecasting based on the worst drought year that we’d had since 1972 and here we are in the second year in a row of a very, very extreme drought. We have become more reliant on these reservoirs and the infrastructure that has been built up. In the case of Kansas, our reservoirs (upon which we depend for a consistent water supply) are silting in. As communities, we’re going to have to find the commitment to invest in that.In Kansas, we have this water fund that they haven’t been funding. So we have this incredibly important resource and we haven’t been investing in it over time.We have just been consuming the benefits of that without looking into the future to see how we are going to take care of it. My concerns are maintaining infrastructure in the face of people’s unwillingness to fund it, and also in the face ofpotentially changing weather patterns – a scenario in which we might have massive rain storms and then extended drought which makes reservoirs even more important.

Any contribution you can make towards reducing those costs or sharing those costs, right now, is important. Getting private funding involved through public/private partnerships sharing infrastructure costs shares both burdens and benefits. Hydropower can be added to all sorts of existing facilities. At Clinton Lake, for example, the Wakarusa fills Clinton, and once the lake is full, the excess isHydro passed on downstream.You could potentially put in hydro generation at that outlet. They let the water out all day every day, but they’re not making energy off of it. 

Taking into account the entire life of a hydro plant, it is the single cheapest form of energy that we know how to create today. The levelized cost of hydro is cheaper than any other energy available. It makes a lot of sense for the both the environment and consumers to be generating electricity at existing dams. Every operating hydro plant installed means less pressure on other fossil fuel resources that provide baseload energy such coal and gas.

Why are we not building hydro everywhere? Why don’t we have it on every one of these dams?

Because of the incredibly high initial capital cost.  It’s cheaper to build a coal-fired power plant than an equivalent hydropower plant, but the difference with a coal-fired power plant is that you’re paying fuel costs for the life of the coal-fired plant. Hydro is much more expensive to build initially, but the fuel for the life of the plant is free. We are seeing hydro costs come down, but we have to continue to battle make new projects feasible and attainable. How do you bridge the very high capital costs? You have to borrow money. With hydro, you’re not talking about really high returns, you’re talking consistent low returns for the first 25 years, or however long you have financed. You have to identify investors who are looking for long-term, stable investments with a moderate return, not a quick turnaround with a high return. All of the financed costs are burdensome, and finding an interest rate that the project can sustain can be very difficult.

Most of the existing hydro capacity in the US today was built by the federal government, so those projects did not face those same financing challenges since the government was subsidizing those costs. I worry about using the "s-word,” because I think it has gotten a bad rap. I think about all that our country has invested in historically - things like railroads or interstates that clearly brought massive economic development and improved quality of life Those things took huge government investment to build, but they were a catalyst for remarkable growth and economic development for the US.

Right now, in my ideal world the government would recognize hydro as an incredibly long-lived resource that can supply inexpensive, domestic energy without polluting the environment. Incremental hydro is especially appealing because it can be added to existing infrastructure with no additional impact. A government program with low interest rates to help bridge the high cost would encourage development of incremental hydro on all these dams everywhere. That kind of program is, to me, what it would take for us to kick-start more low-impact hydro development. I would love for us as a nation to take a long term look at where we’re going to get our energy and what we can do for little investment to encourage more development of incremental hydro.

Long-term investments. Bowersock was built in 1905 and we are producing more electricity out of the plant today than ever. You can rewind the units to produce more electricity, there are more efficiencies, etc. These units can last for over a hundred years as ours have demonstrated. When every currently operational coal-fired power plant in Kansas has been retired, in theory, we will still be generating electricity out of the same units we are operating today. Hydro equipment lasts. For example, a runner which is a typical part of a turbine lasts for 30-40 years. You expect a hydroelectric power plant to last 200 plus years, while the lifespan of a natural gas plant or coal fired power plant is much shorter than that.

It takes water to produce all kinds of energy and we realize that some types of power generation require more water than others. How much water is consumed to generate power at Bowersock?

We do not consume any water. We are a totally non-consumptive. All we are doing is borrowing the weight of the water as it falls through the unit. We are not taking water away from anyone.We are a run-of-river plant, which means that we don’t significantly alter the flows in the river. We are required by our license to pass the same amount of water that’s coming downstream, so whatever flows the river has as it enters Lawrence, we pass the same amount on to Johnson County. If the river is flowing 1000 cubic feet per second, we pass 1000 cubic feet per second. Plus, there are no impacts at water quality at our plant. As I referenced earlier, we are certified as a Low Impact Hydropower Plant by the Low Impact Hydropower Institute. Earning this certification is difficult, and all the agencies and NGOs have to agree that our impact is minimal. For example, that we are not interrupting spawning patterns of any fish in the river.

You seem to be a long-range, strategic thinker. What’s on the horizon? What are your hopes for the future?

My hope is that any dam that we depend upon for flood control or water supply could have hydro on it. I want to see a distributed energy grid. I want to see hydro generated through all conduits, outtakes for wastewater treatment plants, etc. I want the United States to be so adept at extracting energy from the flow of water that the two become conceptually inextricable. We won’t even think about putting in a water pipe without adding hydro into it. We need to be strategic about maintaining the existing water structure.

My ideal would be we would have completely domestic sustainable energy 100 years from now. If the water is flowing, we are using that.If the sun is shining, or the wind is blowing, we are using that to make energy. And we should be using them all to complement one another. Existing reservoirs can be used to firm solar. Pump the water up in the daytime and run it down in the night like a giant battery. Same thing with wind turbines. If the turbines are producing energy that we don’t need energy on the grid, use that energy to pump water up hill. When you need energy, run it out using hydro. My look to the future is that I would hope for my children that we have distributed energy development everywhere. We recognize there is a water supply and distribution need. We recognize there is an energy supply need. Let’s be strategic about it.

We hope you enjoyed this month's Heartland Voices blog. 



Comments (8)

Newest first Oldest first

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    #8 – 6 August, 2020 at 8:10 am

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    #7 – 6 August, 2020 at 8:10 am

  3. glyxar.ru's avatar glyxar.ru

    Everything is very open with a really clear

    explanation of the issues. It was truly informative.

    Your website is extremely helpful. Thanks for sharing!

    #6 – 25 April, 2019 at 5:21 am

  4. glyxar.ru's avatar glyxar.ru

    Everything is very open with a really clear explanation of the issues.

    It was truly informative. Your website is extremely helpful.

    Thanks for sharing!

    #5 – 25 April, 2019 at 5:21 am

  5. Clark Coan's avatar Clark Coan

    Climate scientists project that parts of Kansas will experience severe and prolonged droughts. Won't this affect water levels in the Kansas River and in turn the hydro plants?

    #4 – 31 March, 2017 at 11:52 am

  6. Rick Fischer's avatar Rick Fischer

    I wonder what the financial possibilities would be like for city owned hydro to help reduce the local tax burden of small towns such as Cottonwood Falls Ks?

    #3 – 16 April, 2016 at 12:42 am

  7. Mr Jan  van Asselt's avatar Mr Jan van Asselt

    Great ideas. Integration makes total sense. If immediate returns outweigh all other considerations we will not have financial incentives to plan for the future.One does not have to read about all fallen empires of history to conclude that over consumption and greed are 'good attributes' to have for a culture to produce collapses of such cultures. "Waste NOT, want NOT" and be mindful of what children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and further generations will inherit, maybe the ever-merging companies will not 'store' their monies offshore and help pay for the infrastructures we need for those future generations. Mr Jan

    #2 – 21 June, 2014 at 6:53 pm

  8. Clark Coan's avatar Clark Coan

    I think hydro is a good renewable energy source, but to be environmentally sound they have to be sited correctly (just like wind farms). For example, you may not want hydro on a salmon stream near the coast. There is anecdotal evidence the new dam at Bowersock is causing the banks to collapse into the river.

    It is my understanding that a hydro plant is going to built at Tuttle Creek and as Sarah says, a low-head hydro plant would work at Clinton Lake. This energy source becomes more risky economically with Climate Change, esp. west of the Mississippi where droughts may become more common.

    #1 – 17 June, 2014 at 12:50 pm

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