By Paul Post, Topeka Group Outings Chair
In November 2012, the Topeka Group toured the Westar Jeffrey Energy Center near St. Mary’s. As most readers know, Jeffrey is a coal fired plant, the largest in Kansas. On April 27, the Topeka Group, along with Jayhawk Audubon in Lawrence, several Kanza Group members and K.U. students, learned about a different way to generate electricity at the Bowersock hydroelectric plant in Lawrence. As many as 50 people were in attendance.
Comprised of seven hydroelectric turbines, the original plant is capable of producing 2.35 MW of environmentally friendly electricity. The Bowersock Mills & Power Company is the only operating hydroelectric plant in Kansas. According to the company’s website, “The Bowersock Mills and Power Company strives to generate renewable energy in a way that creates a minimum impact on the environment.” In the last year, the original power plant on the south side of the Kansas River was supplemented by a new, state-of-the-art plant on the north river bank, as well as upgrades to the dam. Four new turbines are now operating in the north plant, which can generate enough electricity to power about 5,400 homes. The pool level of the mill pond behind the dam is controlled by “flash boards” that can be raised or lowered as the level of the river rises and falls, so that relatively constant flow can be maintained. Originally, the boards were raised or lowered by use of an overhead crane that spans the river. The dam upgrade included installation of pneumatic flash boards that can be raised or lowered from the control room using compressed air. The city of Lawrence helped pay for these upgrades, as Lawrence relies upon water in the mill pond for much of its water supply.
Bowersock was established in 1874, originally as a flour milling company, but also provided mechanical power to downtown businesses. In 1886, only five years after Thomas Edison established the first commercial power plant in New York City, Bowersock added its first direct current (D.C.) generator. After the 1903 flood, the plant was rebuilt and the generators were converted to alternating current (A.C.).
Over the years, Bowersock struggled to remain financially solvent, particularly during the 1970s and 80s. Many Lawrence businesses expressed an interest in purchasing renewable energy from Bowersock, but under Kansas law, Bowersock was only allowed to wholesale its energy. Things have improved for Bowersock, primarily as a result of rulings made by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) that allowed for greater opportunities for independent power producers in energy markets. In the late 1970s, the Public Utilities Regulatory Policy Act of 1978 (PURPA), actually set a price floor for purchasers of Bowersock’s energy, at the time was being bought exclusively by Westar Energy. FERC’s later rulings in the 1990s gave Bowersock the opportunity to sell to utilities other than Westar. In June of 2008 the company began to sell energy to the Kansas Power Pool (KPP), which is a consortium of small Kansas municipal utilities.
The mill pond above the Bowersock dam provides the City of Lawrence with a reliable source of drinking water, even during periods of drought. The area around the Bowersock dam has also become a favorite hunting and nesting area the bald eagle, during the winter months. A home powered by hydro power rather than coal you would prevent 7.2 tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere each year.
The company is led by Stephen Hill, whose family first established The Bowersock Mills and Power Company. Mr. Hill has extensive business and hydropower experience, as he has run BMPC since 1972, while maintaining primary employment as a financial advisor for Morgan Stanley Smith Barney. Stephen Hill’s partner in the management of Bowersock is his daughter and co-owner, Sarah Hill-Nelson, who has been running BMPC along with her father since 2002.
In addition to her experience running the plant for seven years, Hill-Nelson was one of the first Kansas energy business leaders to leverage renewable attributes through Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs or Green Tags), and she has been actively involved in legislative issues relating to renewable energy. Ms. Hill-Nelson’s most important contributions to the BMPC Team lies in her long-term commitment to the Lawrence community and the environment. Ms. Hill-Nelson acts as the primary manager of Bowersock Operations including all business relationships, and is currently managing the FERC licensure process.
How “green” is Bowersock? While there is some debate over the environmental impacts of hydroelectric power, Bowersock has been designated as a “low-impact” hydropower facility. This means that in comparison to other hydroelectric power plants, Bowersock’s environmental impacts are limited.
Our members were treated to tours of both power plants, as well as “up close” views of the dam and the recent water control improvements. The company brochure refers to the facility as “Kansas’ Largest Hydropower Facility,” but the web site discloses that it is the only commercial hydro plant in the state.
The company web site is http://www.bowersockpower.com.