Archive for Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Bowersock hydroelectric plant to get tall in a hurry

‘It definitely will be a skyline-changer’

Crews are about a year into constructing a $25 million hydroelectric power plant for Bowersock Mills & Power Co. on the north bank of the Kansas River. When the building is completed, it will be about 48 feet taller than the top of the Kansas River levee. Designed by Lawrence-based Sabatini Architects, it will feature a glass story that allows passersby to see the inner workings of the plant.

Crews are about a year into constructing a $25 million hydroelectric power plant for Bowersock Mills & Power Co. on the north bank of the Kansas River. When the building is completed, it will be about 48 feet taller than the top of the Kansas River levee. Designed by Lawrence-based Sabatini Architects, it will feature a glass story that allows passersby to see the inner workings of the plant.

May 29, 2012


Sarah Hill-Nelson stands 30 feet below the Kansas River and knocks on wood.

Bowersock Hydroelectric Plant

A new Hydroelectric Plant is being built for Bowrersock Mills and Power on the north side of the Kansas River. The new plant will produce more clean energy than the older plant across the river. Enlarge video

Not that wood is easily found. Here on the north bank of the Kaw, Hill-Nelson is surrounded by concrete, it seems. But mention the mild Kansas spring that has kept the waters of the Kaw manageable, and she finds a 2-by-4 to rap. Talk of how this massive, $25 million hydroelectric power plant project has defied the odds to stay on schedule, and she finds a wooden form to touch.

Down here in the depths of the Kansas River, though, concrete just dominates the place. Hill-Nelson stands in something that some would say resembles a three-sided concrete tomb. Near her feet are four empty pits in a concrete floor. Soon enough the pits will house turbines. Two are new from China. But the two that Hill-Nelson gushes about came out of a 1930s hydroelectric power plant in Maine.

“We actually have all the operator’s notes from the 1930s,” Hill-Nelson says with an excitement only someone who grew up in a hydroelectric power plant could muster.

Down here, her voice — and her excitement, too — echoes. At her back is a concrete wall whose thickness is measured in feet, not inches. About 30 feet above her head is a solid concrete ceiling. Staring upward at the ceiling is when it really hits you that soon, the top of the Kansas River will cover this.

That’s why Hill-Nelson urges all those motorists who cross the downtown Kansas River bridges to get a good look. Crews are 12 months into constructing a new hydroelectric power plant for her family’s Bowersock Mills & Power Co. For decades, motorists will drive over the Kansas River bridges and wonder how this plant works and what lurks beneath the surface of the Kaw.

Folks can see it clearly now. Eight open chambers, wide and tall ready to be filled with water. Come December, if the project stays on schedule, crews will remove the coffer dams that keep the water at bay today. Hill-Nelson tries not to think of the day when water will fill these chambers. Tries not to think of the day when her family, descendants of the man who finally figured out how to dam the Kaw in the late 1800s, can throw the switch on this new plant.

“It makes me too nervous,” Hill-Nelson says. “I just keep saying we have to get through today.”

But the day will come. The waters will rise, the turbines will turn, and the view will disappear. The bottom of the Kansas River will once again be what river bottoms are meant to be: a mystery.

“Hopefully,” Hill-Nelson says as she stands under the Kansas River bridge and looks at the dry land surrounding her hydroelectric plant, “folks will never see it this way again.”

Then she spins frantically, scanning the ground for a piece of scrap.

“Oh, touch wood, touch wood.”


What will stand above the surface of the Kansas River, though, is on the mind of Hill-Nelson a lot these days. Simply put, it will be a tall building that grows out of the north bank of the Kaw.

“I’ve been to a lot of meetings and stood up and said ‘it’s going to be tall. Are your ready for a tall building?’” Hill-Nelson said.

The answer always has been yes, but now she’s fretting about what community members may think as construction crews keep adding levels. In the past, the building has been described as being a bit taller than the Kansas River bridges. But, perhaps “a bit” wasn’t the best description.

Hill-Nelson recently got out her calculator and did some figuring to provide specifics. When the building is completed, it will be about 48 feet taller than the top of the Kansas River levee. For motorists familiar with the steel tower directly east of the Kansas River bridge, that’s about how tall the building will be.

And it will get tall in a hurry. Hill-Nelson said crews are scheduled to start raising pre-fabricated concrete walls in July that will rapidly add to the height of the building.

“One day you will drive across the bridge and be like ‘Wow,’” Hill-Nelson said.

The building needs to be tall for a couple of reasons. The design requires that a 50-ton crane be stationed on the top floor of the building. The crane needs to be in place in order to do maintenance on the four turbines and generators, which each weigh about 40 tons.

The design also requires one entire story that is completely devoid of equipment, except for the long shafts that connect the turbines at the bottom of the plant to the generators at the top. The empty story is designed to allow floodwaters from the Kaw to simply flow through the building without damaging key equipment.

If water levels reach historic highs, Hill-Nelson said the plant will look like a little island on the Kaw, with nothing but its top story that houses the generators and the crane standing above the water.

Hill-Nelson is hoping that view doesn’t happen often. On most days, she said the building will look a bit like a drive-by classroom on hydroelectric power. The building, designed by Lawrence-based Sabatini Architects, will feature a glass story that allows passersby to see the inner workings of the plant and hypothesize about how the whole process works. People already are doing a lot of guessing about that.

“You can’t believe how many people stop me in the grocery store and asks how this is going to work,” Hill-Nelson said.

She’s betting the building will be a source of curiosity for decades to come.

“The plant certainly won’t be taller than the North Lawrence grain elevators or taller than City Hall, but as people come across the bridge, they are going to notice it,” Hill-Nelson said. “It definitely will be a skyline-changer.

“We hope it will become known as a signature building in Lawrence.”


At about this time, Hill-Nelson could use an entire Redwood forest to knock upon. She’s talking about everything this power plant has to be designed to withstand. That includes sliding, tilting, floating and lots of other things you don’t want a $25 million building to do.

“Sometimes I panic about everything that could go wrong, but then I look across the river at the old powerhouse,” Hill-Nelson said. “They built that in 1905, and that brings my stress level down.”

The old powerhouse on the south bank of the Kansas River is a remnant of Justin D. Bowersock, Hill-Nelson’s great-great grandfather who used the mill to power a host of industrial businesses along the Kaw, ranging from a barbed wire factory to flour mills.

Hill-Nelson said the technology inside the two buildings will be remarkably similar. The process for using water to produce electricity hasn’t changed much in the last century. Constructing a building along the river, however, has.

The 1905 building relied on horses and mules to haul cut limestone to the site, while the new building project makes use of a crane and earth movers.

Both buildings follow the basic principle of digging a deep hole to find bedrock that can support the massive weight of the plant. But the new plant takes advantage of materials that would have been tough to muster in 1905. The floor that construction crews are working on will be three feet of solid concrete. Last week, crews were installing the last of 50 tons of rebar to reinforce the floor.

Employees with the project’s general contractor, Kansas City, Mo.-based Kissick Construction, do a lot of unique projects along rivers, but employees said this one has been memorable.

Employees tell how several community members frequently will stand for an hour or more on the Kansas River levee just to watch the construction process.

“And I admit, I’ve actually taken quite a few pictures,” said construction worker Steve Crews of Platte County, Mo. “My kids always want to know what I do. This is one I want them to see.”

Crews said he’ll be sad to see the project end, which gave him an idea that he shared with Hill-Nelson during a recent lunch break.

“You ought to build another one of these,” he said.

That’s not likely. The project has kept Hill-Nelson and her father, Stephen Hill, plenty busy. When completed the plant will produce enough electricity to power about 3,300 homes each day. The plant’s power supply already has been sold for the next 25 years to the Kansas City Kan. Board of Public Utilities, which will get to market the power as part of its portfolio of green energy.

Work is scheduled to be completed by the end of the year, which caused one recent visitor to ask whether Hill-Nelson already had started planning a ribbon cutting for the project. Would she have a large party for the public? Not one, she replied.

“I think,” she said, “we’re going to have a series of parties when we’re done with this.”

Touch wood.


Frank A Janzen 5 years, 9 months ago

"That’s why Hill-Nelson urges all those motorists who cross the downtown Kansas River bridges to get a good look." Sure, take your eyes off the road on the bridge. See how many accidents happen.

Jayhawk_4_Life 5 years, 9 months ago

how negative are you? i'm sure that's exactly what she meant by saying that.

JackMcKee 5 years, 9 months ago

I've always been curious how the water rights work on that dam. Does the family own parcels on both sides of the dam? Another sad state of affairs in Kansas law. Rivers should be free to travel.

John Kyle 5 years, 9 months ago

What sad state of affairs are you talking about? Are you saying we should remove the Bowerstck dam from the river? I've canoed the Kaw many times and never had to pay. What ARE you talking about?

JackMcKee 5 years, 9 months ago

I'm asking what gives this family the rights to that section of River but I can understand how coming right out and blatantly asking that could confuse you.

average 5 years, 9 months ago

The plants are there under license from the city. How sweetheart that is (could someone else have bid) is up for argument.

However, in terms of recreational navigation, there is going to be a dam there to keep water levels up for the municipal water supply intake and the city is going to have to maintain it. Just like there is on the Kaw in Topeka. Whether or not a single watt of power is generated. This goes back to water retention rights established in the 1860s and 70s.

The_Voice_of_Reason 5 years, 9 months ago

Dam, can't wait to see it when its finished...

50YearResident 5 years, 9 months ago

Now that construction is well underway, all Hill-Nelson will need is water. My question is, is there really enough water flow in the Kaw to support this plant? Also, who will be responsable for maintaining the dam itself. In the past it has been passed off to the city because they need water flow for their intake pumps for drinking water. Are the Hills going to be 100% responsable for dam maintainance? Is this building going to be a worse eye sore than the Compton building at 9th and New Hampshire due to the height, which the city has made Compton change and lower several times now?

JackMcKee 5 years, 9 months ago

I'm not sure this get built without help from the City. There is no way the ledger balances on this deal otherwise. This place might make $25 million, if it runs 50 years.

JackMcKee 5 years, 9 months ago

and, it's a safe bet that it's going to be ugly.

JackMcKee 5 years, 9 months ago

Bowersock has been gernerating electricity for a lot longer than the "green movement". I doubt it's very much power, but it's enough to run a couple of light bulbs.

JackMcKee 5 years, 9 months ago

yea, I'm going to go ahead and blame Cromwell for this one. Worst city commission ever.

2002 5 years, 9 months ago

Well, you're fact checking leaves quite a bit to be desired. This plant will power thousands of times more energy than a 'couple light bulbs.' But that is what we have come to expect from the you Lawrence Liberal types. I'm a but left myself, but am constantly embarrassed by the hate everything extremists that live in this town. Hydroelectric power is the most green technology that there is. The visual price is minimal and it produces carbon free energy for decades. I wish that they would convert every dam in the state to include hydro power.

JackMcKee 5 years, 9 months ago

Did Zarco 66 need the city to cosign to finance their wind turbine? refresh my memory. A great energy producing project like the Bowersock dam should have no trouble attracting investors, right?

anotherview 5 years, 9 months ago

Not much to finance. The last I heard, this turbine just spins. No power is produced.

JackMcKee 5 years, 9 months ago

but, hey, don't let logic and economics get in the way of making your decisions based on how it makes you feel. Feeling good is the most important aspect of decision making. I can tell this project makes you feel really good too. That's an excellent sign!

JustNoticed 5 years, 9 months ago

It's really sickening how full of hate you are.

JackMcKee 5 years, 9 months ago

The Tower of Power will make a nice bookend with the Tower of Terror.

John Hampton 5 years, 9 months ago

So... prior to the building of this power plant... how many boating enthusiasts freely boated the calm waters over the pre-existing dam?

What the heck are you talking about?

pace 5 years, 9 months ago

Looks a lot cleaner than the "clean" coal. Good luck to the Hill family.

FlintlockRifle 5 years, 9 months ago

The Hill/Bowersock family have been a part of our town for many years, creating jobs for lots of familys. Back in 1970's or so a friend of mine named Swede worked in the present power plant, that was when they lower the river level on south side for repairs to the power building. Went down one evening with Swede to gas up the pump used to keep water level down, he drove the old Dodge company pick-up down the temporary road below the power plant building. I had my camera and took a picture of him in the "bottom" of the river with the building in the background. He had it in this office at the plant untell he retired. I remember all the fish hooks and lead sinkers hanging all over the bottom side of the bulding.Hope he passed on to the Hill family, hope it's some place safe. I didn't keep a copy or the negative, dumb on my part----

blindrabbit 5 years, 9 months ago

Mr. McKee's got his knickers in a bind! By buying the correct fit you can relieve the discomfort. Or maybe, he is concerned with the river being closed North to South, it will disrupt the annual carp migration; of course some states have helped aleviate this problem for Pacific salmon by installing fish ladders, do you concur?

On a serious note, are there any other hydroelectric units in the State?

riverdrifter 5 years, 9 months ago

No. In the past there has been talk of building one below Tuttle Creek lake.

JackMcKee 5 years, 9 months ago

Whose not being serious? It's a dam being used for private gain on a waterway. I think that the public should be compensated for that use. If the family owns the land on both sides of the river it's different. One thing think Missouri handles better than Kansas is river property rights.

I'd like to know who actually owns the property. Is the family leasing it from the city? Isn't there a park right where they're building that dam?

Tom McCune 5 years, 9 months ago

I don't know anything about this project, but I did formerly work for a utility that operated numerous hydro units. I know there has been a small hydro plant at Bowersock for a long time. But it always seemed to me that the Kaw lacked enough flow volume and "head height" at Lawrence to generate a significant amount of power economically. This seems especially true since much of the peak power demand occurs in the Summer (for air conditioning) when the Kaw usually sort of dries up.

LJW: do you have any info on the economics of this project? Maybe only the engineering geeks would pay attention, but it would be interesting to know some basic stats such as:

  • Peak generating capacity (in megawatts)
  • Expected generating hours per year
  • Wholesale price per mwh paid by KCK BPU

pace 5 years, 9 months ago

We get a lot of our water from right above the dam. The kaw hasn't never dried up in the decades I have lived beside it. I have seen it low, and seen it over the banks. but no, no I have never seen it dry up.

JackMcKee 5 years, 9 months ago

It won't touch 1.21 gigawatts so forget it McFly.

labmonkey 5 years, 9 months ago

Two problems I have with this article. One, why can't they use American made generators in this plant instead of the two made in China. Two, the article fails to mention how many megawatts this plant will produce.

Generally you can figure that 1 (non-peak) MWhr will average $35 (although that figure can go into several hundred dollars per MWhr in peak usage during the summer). On the web, I found that the original Bowersock dam produces 2.35 MW and the expansion will add 5 MW. Doing the math using a $35 MWhr average, it will take a little north of 16 years for those 5 MW to pay for the $25 million expansion.

JackMcKee 5 years, 9 months ago

Is that peak, average or mean production?

Tom McCune 5 years, 9 months ago

Is there actually enough flow volume in the Kaw for them to operate these turbines for any extended period of time? They must have done their due diligence before spending $25m. But this facility is so much smaller and lower than what I am used to, it seems sketchy. The utility I worked for used its hydro as "peaking" units to serve those Summer/noon peak demands. Yes, Bowersock could get a large premium for Summer/noon peak power IF there is enough flow volume in the river to serve the turbines. But if they drain the "reservoir" in a few hours, it won't re-fill very fast, given the normal Summer flow of the Kaw. Just intuition here. No numbers. LJW?

JackMcKee 5 years, 9 months ago

once you factor in the operating costs and depreciation, I bet you're looking at a rate of return of about 0.02%. For the uninitiated, that means it's a bad use of money and it's also the reason they had to get loans and have the city cosign. This is a feel good project that has Cromwell's finger prints all over it. It wouldn't surprise me if he came up with the idea. It's about the level the man thinks on.

They're never going to compete with cheap natural gas and an abundant supply of coal.

labmonkey 5 years, 9 months ago

I believe that is peak production (although as long as the river flows, they should be able to produce this contunually). Most electric utilities are parts of larger cooperatives when it comes to transmission. Part of the deal with these cooperatives is that "green" energy has first dibs to transmission before "dirty" energy. The power companies who did this did so in anticipation of an EPA ruling that never came down.

Most states have percentage of renewable energy rules, and many power companies have even more stringent rules for good PR. This is why the bigger companies buy the rights to hydroelectric and wind power so they can meet these quotas.

Because of these factors, I can see that as long as the river flows, they will sell all 7.35 MW of electricity, even in non-peak times. As for flow of the river, that is something I do not know about. My figure of 16 years is 16 years worth of hours at 5 MW.

JackMcKee 5 years, 9 months ago

Does anyone know if there is any way the city can be help liable for these loans? I know they claimed during the hearings at City Hall that there wasn't a possibility, but as any attorney will tell you, if you associate your name with something and sign on the dotted line, unexpected things can and do happen. It would not surprise me in the least if this City Commission just unknowingly put Lawrence on the hook for $25 million.

GardenMomma 5 years, 9 months ago

Two turbines are new, from China. Two are from Maine that have been running since 1930. Let's hope the Chinese turbines last as long as the older ones from Maine.

tbaker 5 years, 9 months ago

I think this thing is awesome. I can't wait to see it in operation!

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