A long-denied hydroelectric plant near St. Anthony Falls could finally become reality, and critics are up in arms.
The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board has denied the construction of a hydroelectric plant in the area for years, fearing its impact on the historic falls. Crown Hydro, LLC has explored several avenues to convince the park board to allow construction, and so far none has been fruitful.
But a bill authored by Rep. Mike Beard, R-Shakopee, and a group of 25 bipartisan legislators directs the park board to authorize an agreement with the company. It also allows the board to collect a royalty of up to 4 percent of annual electrical production revenues.
Discussion of the bill at Wednesday night’s Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee hearing quickly turned to questions of state government’s role in local matters.
An attorney for the park board testified that the bill would require the Legislature to participate in a breach of contract between the park board and Crown Hydro.
“I think this is an inappropriate bill for us to consider,” said Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-St. Paul.
Despite that concern, the bill moved to the Government Operations and Elections Committee.
A more severe version of the bill introduced earlier this week would have cut state aid to the park board unless it allowed the facility to be built.
The proposed 3.2 megawatt facility would be able to power 2,000 homes using two turbines 40 feet underground at the west end of the Stone Arch Bridge, according to the company’s website. The project is touted as a source of renewable energy with a low impact on the neighboring community.
It would use tunnels under the historic mills to divert water into the turbine. Crown Hydro offered $500,000 and annual royalties to the park board for use of the land in its latest proposal on March 22.
The offer also mentioned its intention to pursue legislation unless the Park Board approved the project, according to Park Board President John Erwin.
Beard called constructing the facility “common sense” for a community exploring renewable sources of energy.
“What’s not to love?” he said.
But some local government officials are more cautious.
Some Park Board commissioners are concerned that the new plant would divert too much water from the Mississippi River and ruin the aesthetics of St. Anthony Falls.
Erwin added that Crown Hydro hasn’t guaranteed that the falls will remain flowing at 2,000 cubic feet per second as requested.
But according to the company’s website, the turbines won’t run when the water level is below average.
Acquiring a license to build a hydro plant is a long process that involves several state and federal agencies to ensure minimal impact on the environment and and the adherence of the company to the terms of the agreement, said Rupak Thapaliya, national coordinator of the Hydropower Reform Coalition.
Crown Hydro was awarded a 50-year license in 1999 by the federal government to build a facility.
Although the project went through a rigorous application process, Park Board commissioner Liz Wielinski isn’t convinced that there won’t be consequences.
She said the board isn’t against the idea of hydroelectric power but is concerned that Crown Hydro doesn’t have experience in maintaining a plant.
“It’s a historic site. It’s where Minneapolis began,” Wielinski said. “Do we really want to take the chance that [Crown Hydro] is going to fix things if it goes wrong?”
Wielinski is also concerned that the legislation would set a “terrible precedent” where the state orders local governments to allow private companies to build on their property.
Ward 3 City Councilwoman Diane Hofstede, whose ward includes St. Anthony Falls, shared similar concerns.
“We feel that the local jurisdiction is the one that has the most information, is closest to the constituents and can make the best recommendations,” Hofstede said.
Beard said that by bringing forth legislation, he hopes to get the two sides to cooperate and strike a deal without writing it in statute.
Similar legislation was introduced in 2009 but was scrapped as the two parties left with the understanding that they would reach an agreement, according to Crown Hydro’s attorney Tim Keane.
But that agreement never took place, and both sides found themselves back at the Capitol on Wednesday.
Beard expects a different outcome this time around.
“We’re not rattling the saber here,” Beard said.