The Kansas River may have its problems, but the Bowersock Mills and Power Co. isn't one of them, according to a new report on the Lawrence-based hydroelectric power plant.
The plant, located on the banks of the Kaw just north of Sixth and Massachusetts streets, recently received certification from the Low Impact Hydropower Institute. The Portland, Maine-based organization studies hydroelectric plants across the country to determine whether they're environmentally friendly.
"There have been issues at that plant over the years, but the company has done a great job addressing them," said Fred Ayer, executive director of the organization. "They're really what everyone is looking for -- a great corporate citizen."
The report is expected to provide a financial boost for the small family-owned power plant. Sarah Hill-Nelson, secretary and treasurer of the company, said that the certification would allow Bowersock to start marketing the power it produces as environmentally friendly "green power."
"It is the type of thing that could eventually allow us to expand the capacity of this plant," said Hill-Nelson, who is a descendant of J.D. Bowersock, who founded the plant in 1874.
Ayer said there was one large environmental issue the plant had to overcome before it received the low-impact certification. He said the fact that the 644-foot long, 18-foot high Bowersock Dam did not have a "fish ladder" to allow fish to swim upstream of the dam was problematic.
"What people don't always realize is that hydropower is not always green power," Ayer said. "Fish passage can be a big environmental problem because dams can block the ability of fish to go upstream."
Ayer said most hydroelectric plants that don't have a fish ladder -- which often costs upward of a million dollars to build -- don't receive the low-impact certification.
But Ayer said in the Bowersock case, there's evidence the dam may be providing a valuable purpose in blocking an invasive species of Asian carp from traveling into the upper reaches of the river.
The Asian carp has been described as a breed of fish that takes over an area's vegetation and crowds out other species of fish. Ayer said the organization received letters from state and federal environmental and wildlife organizations saying the lack of a fish ladder may be a benefit for the river.
Laura Calwell, the Kansas Riverkeeper for the Friends of the Kaw, said she agreed the power plant deserved certification.
"Anytime you dam a river there are consequences to the river, but we feel like they're doing a great job of running the plant," Calwell said.
Calwell said her nonprofit watchdog group was supportive of the plant, in part, because it believes the development of more green power will reduce other types of pollution that have found their way into the Kansas River.
Hill-Nelson said she was optimistic the recent certification would help the financial health of the power plant, which doesn't disclose its revenues but produces enough electricity to power about 2,000 homes.
Currently, the company sells its power to nearby Westar Energy, which has a coal-fired power plant just north of Lawrence. The power is pumped into the regional electric grid, where the green energy becomes indistinguishable from the power produced at Westar's coal-fired power plant.
But now that Bowersock has received the low-impact certification, it also can start charging a premium for its environmentally friendly power. It does so by selling a product called green tags. The tags are bought by other electric companies or large users of electricity who want to be able to say they're using renewable energy.
Hill-Nelson anticipates the green tags will result in an extra $7,000 in revenue for the company in 2005.
"We know that isn't a huge number, but our hope is that the green tags will be worth a lot more than that in the future," Hill-Nelson said.
She said it was possible the tags eventually could generate enough revenue to expand the plant by about 50 percent. She said state lawmakers, both in Kansas and across the country, could help in driving new demand for green tags.
Some states, including Texas while George W. Bush was governor, have approved policies that require a certain percentage of the state's energy usage to come from renewable sources. Green tags from the Bowersock plant could be bought by electric companies in those states to help meet the renewable energy requirements.
Kansas doesn't have any such policy regarding renewable energy usage, but Hill-Nelson said she hoped lawmakers would consider one. She said it would boost her business and could be a major incentive to grow the state's struggling but potentially lucrative wind energy industry.
"It would be a great thing for Kansas if the state could do something to help the green tag market take off," Hill-Nelson said. "It would be great for all these small towns that can produce wind energy."
Rep. Tom Sloan, R-Lawrence who serves on the House utilities committee, said a renewable energy mandate had been opposed by utility companies for fear it would increase the cost of electricity.
But Sloan said the issue might arise for discussion during the next legislative session, which begins in January.