A public forum Nov. 26 to discuss Crown Hydro LLC’s proposed hydroelectric plant at St. Anthony Falls left many attendees with unanswered questions and unsettled stomachs.
Crown Hydro initially set out in the late 1990s to construct a plant on Park Board Property, upstream from the Army Corps of Engineers property housing the Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam. It received a license, document No. 11175, from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 1999. At the time the project received five of the six votes needed from the Park Board to win approval.
The location of the plant was one of the biggest concerns among residents and Park Board members. The other was the detrimental effects the plant could have on the flow of the falls.
“Crown Hydro could not get around the fact that the harvesting of this water would result in the likely drying of the tailraces for a considerable number of days a year,” said Park Board President John Erwin.
After repeatedly being turned away, and a suggestion by Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on April 15 that dropping the project should be considered, Crown Hydro drafted a new proposal.
The new facility would be located on the west bank of the Mississippi River, within sight from the Stone Arch Bridge, and will be reconstructed using “old mill tunnels in the historic Waterpower-West Bank Milling Area”, according to the Crowing Hydro website.
“The intention is to create a tailrace that goes down on primarily Army Corps of Engineers land, but partially under the Stone Arch Bridge. The Park Board is objecting to this on some of the same grounds we’ve objected to before,” said Erwin.
In addition to the potential drying up of St. Anthony Falls, an area with a troubled history with taleraces drying, another negative of the project highlighted by the Park Board is the potential impact on functionality and aesthetics of the Stone Arch Bridge. There is also no guarantee the project does not compromise the integrity of the bridge, Erwin said.
"What we have here is something that's aesthetically pleasing to people and people come to the river because they enjoy seeing the river," says Minneapolis Park Board Commissioner Anita Tabb. She added, "If there's no river, then what is there for them to see?"
Tabb and many residents suggest St. Anthony Falls could be reduced to a concrete slab, ruining any view from the Bridge.
The “concrete slab” is currently a concrete berm with a drain running into it. Photos on Crown Hydro's proposed plant, the berm would be filled in with concrete covering the drain. Additionally, the company suggests that the hardware of the plant will largely only be visible internally.
“The generating equipment (i.e., turbines) will be placed 42 feet below ground, inside the powerhouse,” according to Crown Hydro’s website. “The Project would have two vertical Kaplan hydroelectric generating units with a hydraulic capacity of 1,000 cfs from a 45-foot hydraulic head, which will also be housed in the powerhouse.”
What’s more troubling is how little is known of the internal structure or affiliation of the electric company, the mysteries of which were left largely uncovered at the event Nov. 26. Crown Hydro attorney Richard Savelkoul was unable to disclose any information regarding the ownership of the company despite repeated inquisitions, much to the dismay of reporters and citizens alike.
"The skepticism, it's valid," he acknowledged. "Everybody with an energy project near them has concerns. We don't take that lightly. That is something we want to make sure everybody gets comfortable with, if at all possible."
Several members of company have been in the public eye over the years, including president Tom Griffin, and co-owner Bill Hawks. However, the structure of the rest of the organization and any partnerships, if existing, remain unclear.
What is apparent through the company’s description of the project is Crown Hydro will partner with Xcel Energy.
“It is the intent of Crown Hydro, through a power purchase agreement with Xcel Energy, to sell the renewable electricity produced by the project to Xcel Energy for markets in the Midwest,” reads the website. “An underground transmission line connection to the Xcel grid will also be installed.”
The company’s website is similarly vague. The contact page has a single phone number listed, 612-741-9330, which is the office of Tim Keane, attorney with Malkerson Gunn Martin LLP, and formerly Crown Hydro. At the time of this writing he has no affiliation with the company.
“I got involved in the project in early 2010. It intrigued me because getting electricity from the river seems liked a pretty common sense thing to do,” he said.
Keane was a driving force behind the move to USACE property. He suggested the project engineers take a look at citing the project off Park Board property, and moving it to United States Army Corps of Engineers property. The company took it to USACE and presented the concept.
“I told them, tell us if this isn’t going to work,” said Keane. They discussed lockage, structural engineering, homeland security and ways around potential hurdles, such as trash getting caught in the grates. “They said this project could work.”
“The project was greatly simplified in its design by taking it off Park Board property,” he added. “This is not a novelty for the USACE. They operate hydroelectric dams all across the county. They understand how it works.”
Construction amendments to the project, recommended by USACE, include moving the powerhouse behind the dam headwall, and two parallel discharge pipes adjacent to the lockage channel.
“The bottom line is it was licensed in the Upper St. Anthony Falls area. There is a license rectangle in which the project is to be located,” Keane said. FERC is requiring Crown Hydro amend the license for this new location, as the proposed construction site was not covered in the original 1999 license.
The main benefits of the plant stressed by Crown Hydro is the clean, renewable energy and employment it will bring to the area.
CrownHydroProject.com offers a more in-depth overview. The description page, dated Nov. 11, 2013, states, “the project will generate an estimated 18,000 megawatt hours (MWh) of carbon-free electric energy per year, which could power approximately 2,000 homes.”
This figure is half of the 4,000 homes reported by Minnesota Public Radio News to be powered by the plany. Essentially, “it will add hydro energy production to an existing lock and dam that does not currently produce any energy,” says the website.
The next step for project will be a 90 day period to conduct and respond to all study requests, draft an amended license application, solicit comments on the application and file a final draft of the application for approval by FERC.