Bowersock power plant signs major deal with Kansas City-based utility

An architectural rendering of the new hydroelectric power plant that Bowersock Mills and Power Company proposes to build on the banks of the Kansas River.

The prospect of a new $20 million hydroelectric power plant that would tower over Lawrence’s north bank of the Kansas River appeared more likely on Thursday.

For that, lovers of green power have the growth of a speedway, shoppers and homes in Wyandotte County partially to thank.

Lawrence-based Bowersock Mills & Power Company confirmed Thursday that it had signed a 25-year deal to sell its current and future green power to the Kansas City Board of Public Utilities, which provides electricity to the growing portions of Wyandotte County.

The deal keeps alive a plan by Bowersock to build a $20 million hydroelectric plant just east of the downtown Kansas River bridges and directly across the river from Bowersock’s 132-year old plant on the south bank.

“This was a critical, critical hurdle for the project,” said Bowersock co-owner Sarah Hill Nelson. “For the last few weeks, my heart has felt like it has been in a vise.”

Now, the project becomes a race against time. Bowersock has been awarded access to more than $23 million in federal bonds to finance the project, but the majority of them come with the requirement that buyers for the bonds must be found before the end of the year.

“We have engaged a legal team to get to work and get those bonds sold,” Hill-Nelson said. “But it is definitely a time press for everyone.”

The city of Lawrence already has agreed to serve as a conduit for selling a majority of the bonds. The city will not be financially backing any of the bonds. City leaders, though, said the city has much to gain from the project.

“It can be tremendously important to the city,” said City Commissioner Aron Cromwell. “The new project will make us a real leader in the Midwest in terms of production of renewable energy.”

Cromwell said the project also could provide the city an important image boost as it tries to attract more companies in the green-energy industry. Cromwell said the city has been on the “short list” for several green industry projects in the recent past.

The new plant would be highly visible. Plans call for the plant — which would have four turbines and would triple the amount of electricity currently produced by Bowersock — to stand 60 feet tall. That would make it just slightly taller than the Kansas River bridges that would be just a few yards from the plant.

The project is expected to add one full-time employee to Bowersock’s operations, but would be a major employer during the construction project.

The plant already has received the necessary federal license. If the bonds are sold in a timely manner, construction would begin in early 2011.

A spokesman with the Kansas City Board of Public Utilities said the organization was excited about partnering with Bowersock. The green power that BPU purchases from Bowersock is expected to be enough to supply electricity to 3,300 homes for a year and eliminate about 188 railcars of coal.

“We’re always looking for an opportunity to park some coal cars,” said David Mehlhaff, public affairs officer for BPU. “We spend about $5 million a month on coal alone, and if we can use something that puts less carbon in the air, we’re interested in doing that.”

Once BPU begins purchasing power from Bowersock, more than 15 percent of BPU’s power will come from renewable sources.

“We feel like this will put us in a good position for the future,” Mehlhaff said.

The new deal will cause Bowersock to end in 2012 its program of offering green tags for sale to the public. The green tags — which was a way for people to pay for the production of green energy to help offset their carbon footprint — won’t be available because BPU will purchasing the entire production capacity of the two Bowersock plants.

The new deal also will mean that technically power produced in Downtown Lawrence won’t be used anywhere in Lawrence. Hill-Nelson said Bowersock did approach local electric provider Westar Energy, but she said a deal was not able to be struck.

“We are just very grateful for how hard the Board of Public Utilities has worked to make this deal happen,” Hill-Nelson said. “We feel like they have a great vision for the future.”