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.


tbaker 1 year, 10 months ago

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


GardenMomma 1 year, 10 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.


blue73harley 1 year, 10 months ago

Chinese generators!

I saw thousands of wind turbines along I-40 while traveling through Texas last week. Most are made in China.

The only green I see is money going overseas.


JackMcKee 1 year, 10 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.


labmonkey 1 year, 10 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.


lcchain 1 year, 10 months ago

Does anyone know how much power this power plant might be capable of producing?


Newell_Post 1 year, 10 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

blindrabbit 1 year, 10 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?


FlintlockRifle 1 year, 10 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----


pace 1 year, 10 months ago

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


John Hampton 1 year, 10 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?


JackMcKee 1 year, 10 months ago

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


consumer1 1 year, 10 months ago

Quick alert the Liberal Lawrence committe that is in charge of stopping the building from casting a shadow on the poor resident catfish in the river!! Protest at city hall!! Think of the catfish having their sunshine taken away by a tall building. How can they have a latte' at the local catfish bistro in the shade of that monster!!


FalseHopeNoChange 1 year, 10 months ago

Larryville 'discovers' hydroelectric power.


Maybe some 'canoe locks' like boat locks in Ballard will 'warm' you to hydroelectric power.


50YearResident 1 year, 10 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?


The_Voice_of_Reason 1 year, 10 months ago

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


JackMcKee 1 year, 10 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.


frankfussman 1 year, 10 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.


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