Bowersock breaks ground on project to build new plant

The great-great-great grandchildren of J.D. Bowersock, the man responsible for the Bowersock dam in 1879, participate in a groundbreaking ceremony Monday, May 16, 2011, for the 0 million project to build a new hydroelectric power plant on the north bank of the Kansas River. Throwing dirt from left are Henry Nelson 9, Hillary Griggs, 10, Hugh Griggs, 4, Oona Nelson, 6 and Lyle Griggs, 8.

Gov. Sam Brownback, right, looks over the Kansas River and visits with Kellen Petersen, left and Jeff Thorn, center, both engineers with Olsson Associates, about the 0 million project to build a new hydroelectric power plant on the north bank of the Kansas River. A groundbreaking ceremony was held Monday for the project.

Next comes a big hole and hopes for a dry summer.

Members of the Lawrence-based Bowersock Mills & Power Company officially broke ground Monday on a $25 million project to build a new hydroelectric power plant on the north bank of the Kansas River. Construction is expected to take the next 20 to 24 months to complete.

“This process has been fraught with difficulties and frustration,” said Stephen Hill, an owner of the local power company. “Sleepless nights and endless meetings were the norm for us. The fact that we are gathered here today is something like a miracle.”

City and state leaders praised the project Monday afternoon at a ceremonial groundbreaking. Gov. Sam Brownback said the project — combined with what he predicts will be multiple new wind projects that will be announced this year — will help make Kansas the “renewable state.” Brownback said that, in turn, will provide a boost to the state’s economy.

“I think the role of renewable energy can be significant,” Brownback said. “The capital investment alone is significant, the jobs created are a help, and we’re hearing from more companies who are looking at Kansas and want to know about our renewable energy portfolio because they see that as another way to sell themselves to the public.”

Sarah Hill-Nelson, chief executive for Bowersock, said major construction work on the project should begin in earnest in a matter of days. The plant will be at the north end of the Bowersock Dam, immediately east of the downtown Kansas River bridges. When completed, the new power plant will be just a bit taller than the bridges and will create a new landmark for motorists entering and leaving downtown.

The plant will operate in conjunction with the 1800s-era plant that Bowersock owns on the south bank of the Kansas River. The new plant will produce enough electricity to power about 3,300 homes per year. The Kansas City, Kan., Board of Public Utilities has signed a 25-year agreement to purchase all the power produced at the plant, which will be used to power homes and businesses in Wyandotte County.

The construction project will be a unique one for Lawrence since a significant portion of the work will occur in the river. Hill-Nelson said that was causing the company to root for a dry summer, in hopes of keeping flows of the river manageable for construction.

The family knows all about the unpredictability of the river. Stephen Hill is the great-grandson of Justin D. Bowersock, the early Lawrence industrialist who is credited with rebuilding the dam to withstand a series of major floods.

“His spirit has been looking over our shoulders on this project,” Hill said.