On August 15, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB) voted to table a proposal from Crown Hydro to build a hydroelectric plant that would use power from the St. Anthony Falls.
The power plant would be located 42 feet underground, with an intake structure similar to the existing design on Downtown’s riverfront near the Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam.
Once inside the plant, the water would fall through a turbine, causing it to spin and send energy to a generator. After a few minutes, the water would be released back into the river through an outlet located just beyond the lock and dam. The process is silent, with no vibrations, but some Park Board commissioners are worried about the effect that the project could have on the Mississippi River and historic mill ruins.
The board’s decision to delay a vote on the project came on the heels of a presentation at the Aug. 15 meeting by Emmons & Olivier Resources (EOR), an environmental consulting firm hired by the MPRB to evaluate the feasibility and impact of the proposed plant.
To be viable, Crown Hydro’s underground turbine would need to produce 21,000 megawatts per hour per year of electricity. It automatically shuts off if the water flow is too low. According to the report, “Even if the MPRB is flexible on the amount of flow required over the St. Anthony Falls spillway, it would be difficult for Crown Hydro to meet the target [goal].”
The consultant concluded that, with the power plant in place, there would be fewer days with the falls at maximum strength and more days in which the flow is weak. According to the report, however, this wouldn’t noticeably change the waterfall’s appearance.
Park Board Commissioner Scott Vreeland, who represents the area where the plant would be located, disagrees. There would be a “tremendous aesthetic impact,” he said. On drier days, “I see a huge difference if there’s just a pulsating wash over the falls.”
Vreeland is also concerned about the potential historic impact that could result from digging in an area with archeological ruins. “Seven different ruins of enormous significance are under there, and they’d be digging through all that,” he said. “If that collapses, who’s holding the bag?”
Crown Hydro has yet to complete a full archeological study, which would be required once they sign a contract, but a summary of the historic impact in EOR’s report found that Mill Ruins Park and the falls “could potentially be adversely impacted by the proposed project.”
“Some of the key features to be potentially impacted include the 19th-century waterworks, gatehouse and tailrace — the heart of the waterpower area,” the writer concluded. “What will the short- and long-term effects be on the historic fabric of the district?”
According to a statement from Crown Hydro in response to the study, the power plant proposal would be required to comply with numerous standards, including the National Historic Preservation Act. “We are 98 percent underground and beneath the ruins,” said Rob Brown, Crown Hydro’s communications representative. “We would have to modify the plan if historical ruins got in the way.”
Not only could the hydroelectric plant affect the history of the site, Vreeland is also worried that the plan would be a bad investment for the Park Board.
“If we lease that land, then we have to return that money to the feds or state depending on who makes claims to those dollars for what amount. What sounds like a million bucks might ultimately be $200,000,” he said. And “if [Crown Hydro doesn’t] meet their projections, we don’t get paid a dime.”
The Park Board received a revamped lease agreement from Crown Hydro last year, and Superintendent Jon Gurban submitted it to an attorney for review. The lawyer called it “the most one-sided contract” he had ever reviewed, citing the 100-year time frame, the terms of land use, inadequate insurance and other items as unfair. “I would strongly advise not signing this lease,” he wrote. “One may question entering into a business agreement with someone who would draft such a lease.”
Xcel Energy’s Renewable Development Fund is financing the project with a $5.1 million grant. Crown Hydro spent $1.2 million creating the turbine, though it currently doesn’t have anywhere to go.