Power plant hopes ‘green tags’ will help it and the environment

Sarah Hill-Nelson has a pretty standard line she gives folks preparing to walk into the 132-year old Bowersock Power Plant on the Kansas River.

“The sucking sound you hear is the sound of money getting sucked into the river,” said Hill-Nelson, who is the treasurer/secretary for the family business that owns the plant.

Funny, right? Take a tour of the plant – which is directly behind Lawrence City Hall at Sixth and Massachusetts streets – and it becomes tougher to laugh.

Hill-Nelson shows visitors construction crews who are working to repair the north wall of the power plant building. The wall had started to fall into the Kansas River.

Go down into the bowels of the plant and you’ll notice something is missing: a floor. Two years ago the floor beneath one of the plant’s four turbines collapsed. Crews continue to work on that.

“The guys heard a really loud noise one day, and we knew that wasn’t good,” Hill-Nelson said. “It’s rarely boring here. It is basically a new disaster every day.”

Add it all up, and it would seem the future is bleak for the plant, which has been producing electricity since 1874 and is credited by historians as being one of the key developments that stopped Lawrence from withering away in the late 1800s.

But Hill-Nelson has never been more positive about the future.

Today is Earth Day, and the movement to be environmentally friendly – especially when it comes to using alternative energy – is gaining momentum. The war in Iraq has put the issue of relying on foreign energy sources in the headlines. Closer to home, wind energy projects for western Kansas continue to develop.

David Readio, who has helped to keep the Bowersock Power Plant running for 17 years, does his daily check of the plant, which is on the banks of the Kansas River.

And now, Hill-Nelson believes her family’s little power plant on the Kaw is ready to capitalize on the movement. In October, the power plant joined forces with a Portland, Ore.-based nonprofit company to form Zephyr Energy. The company is offering businesses and individuals a unique way to buy “green power” generated at Bowersock.

Setting an example

Zephyr now is starting to have some high-profile success stories. The Journal-World announced earlier this week that it was buying enough green energy to offset the amount of traditional energy it uses to power its presses. And Hill-Nelson said she has a dozen other area businesses who have either signed or are close to signing an agreement to power their businesses with green power.

Next on her list is City Hall. Some city commissioners have expressed an interest in buying enough green energy to power the City Hall building.

“Lawrence has an obligation to set an example,” City Commissioner Boog Highberger said. “We encourage our citizens to be more energy efficient and environmentally sensitive. I think we should take the lead.”

Cost estimates for how much the green power would increase the city’s energy bill haven’t been developed yet, but Hill-Nelson said she thinks it could be the type of thing to get individuals to think about buying green power.

“I would love to see the city get involved,” Hill-Nelson said. “We have some great business leaders who have taken this on. We would love to see the city get involved. It would send a great message.”

How it works

Businesses or individuals who are enrolling in the green energy program, aren’t actually switching their electricity providers. Instead, they’re buying what the alternative energy industry calls “green tags.”

A green tag basically allows a business or individual to place an order with a green energy company to produce a certain amount of energy that is produced in an environmentally friendly manner.

The green energy companies produce the power, but it doesn’t get shipped directly to the people who bought the green tags. Instead, the electricity gets funneled into the overall power grid where it becomes indistinguishable from traditionally produced energy.

Theoretically, green tags improve the environment because for every kilowatt of green electricity that is produced that is one less kilowatt of power that a traditional power plant must produce.

“I tell people that if we went out of business that would be that much more coal that Westar would have to burn,” Hill-Nelson said.

The Bowersock plant has the ability to produce enough electricity for about 1,500 homes, she said.

Paying a premium

On the financial side, buying a green tag essentially amounts to paying an extra bill for your energy. People continue to pay their electric bill from Westar Energy for the amount of electricity that they use each month. But in addition, they also pay an annual green tag fee, which sometimes can be broken into monthly installments.

Prices vary because a green tag customer can choose to buy enough green tags to offset their entire home’s energy usage or just enough to offset a portion of it.

Lawrence resident Carey Maynard-Moody said she and her husband are spending about $200 per year on green tags to offset their home’s energy usage.

“It is a real investment, but it has value,” Maynard-Moody said. “Green energy is going to cost more because it is more expensive to produce. But the insurance of having a brighter future is worth it to me.”

Hill-Nelson said she thought the green tag movement had the potential to catch on much like another environmentally oriented movement.

“It is like organic food,” Hill-Nelson said. “People pay more for it because they know there is a benefit. In this case, it is a long-term benefit. It means our air is going to be cleaner.”

And Lawrence residents will get the extra benefit of knowing they are helping a longtime local business stay in business. Much of the money paid for Zephyr green tags goes directly to Bowersock, with a percentage also going to help spur new wind energy projects across the country.

Hill-Nelson stopped short of saying that the power plant would have closed if not for the new green tag program, but she said it finally gives the company a financial plan for how to take care of a long list of deferred maintenance items and generally brighten the plant’s future.

And for Hill-Nelson and her family, it means a lot that the power plant that once powered a row of major industries – ranging from barbed-wire factories and the manufacturer of Zephyr Flour – is once again being turned to by Lawrence residents as a source of power.

“It’s exciting to think that we’re powering a part of downtown again,” Hill-Nelson said.