Crown Hydro faces tough crowd at public meeting

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November 26, 2013 // UPDATED 10:06 pm - December 2, 2013
By: Ben Johnson
Crown Hydro representatives field questions at a Nov. 26 meeting
Ben Johnson
Ben Johnson
Promise of more details down the line fails to satisfy feisty audience

*Updated to include an address to file comment with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission

A frustrated crowd received few answers from Crown Hydro representatives at a public meeting held Nov. 26 to solicit feedback regarding the proposed hydroelectric facility.

After a short presentation, Richard Savelkoul, a St. Paul-based lawyer, and engineers from Wenck Engineering fielded questions on behalf of Crown Hydro for an hour and 15 minutes.

Before opening the floor to questions Savelkoul warned the audience that they “wouldn’t have all the answers, as this is an ongoing process,” but it was clear people were expecting more after nearly 15 years of planning, tweaking and studying where to put the hydropower plant.

“I just spent an hour or so wasting my time here…these people are not prepared, they shouldn’t be here, they shouldn’t have called the meeting and I suggest they have to have another one with some actual answers prior to any approval,” said one downtown resident.

After being repeatedly chastised for his vague answers and “I don’t know” responses, Savelkoul countered that the public meeting was set up to field public comment and questions, and that more answers would be coming further along the approval process.

The proposal and its concerns

Crown’s latest proposal has shifted the site of the hydropower facility 150 feet north, off of Park Board property – which is staunchly opposed to the project – and onto US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) property that houses the Upper St. Anthony Lock and Dam. Crown is attempting to get the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to grant an amendment to its current license, granted in 1999, instead of having to go through the entire approval process again for the new site.

The latest plans show between 200 and 1,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water being drawn from an existing headrace canal used by the Upper St. Anthony Lock and Dam above St. Anthony Falls. The water drops through a 930-foot tailrace tunnel, travelling past the falls and beneath the Stone Arch Bridge, turning two 10-foot tall turbines located 42 feet below ground in the process. At the end of the tailrace tunnel the water flows back into the Mississippi River, and the power generated is run several blocks up Portland Avenue to connect to the power grid.

An agreement is in place to sell the power to Xcel Energy, although Crown will not disclose the details of that agreement.

The two major concerns voiced over Crown’s proposal are that drilling a 930-foot tunnel in a geologically sensitive area could harm the Stone Arch Bridge, and that drawing water from an area of the Mississippi River that already houses an Xcel Energy hydroelectric facility nearly three times larger than Crown’s proposal could dry up St. Anthony Falls for long stretches of time.

Savelkoul acknowledged that Crown’s license allows it to draw water until St. Anthony Falls runs dry in certain circumstances. Those circumstances, found in Article 404 of the original 1999 FERC agreement, are:

  • During any periods of very low flows when the project could not operate at 200 cfs without drying up St. Anthony Falls, the project will operate only from nightfall until dawn
  • Between December 15 and March 15, the project will operate with whatever flows are available even if it dries up the falls
  • During low flows in July and August, the project will operate with up to 500 cfs during daylight hours even if it dries up the falls and up to 1,000 cfs from nightfall until dawn

Crown has refused adjust those conditions to ensure that water is always flowing over St. Anthony Falls, according to several members of the Park Board.

Questions surrounding Crown ownership

Another point of contention came when audience members called for Crown representatives to reveal the financial stakeholders in the project.

“There does seem to be to be a rather mysterious element to Crown Hydro,” said Arlene Fried, co-founder of the blog Minneapolis Park Watch. “We don’t know who the people behind it are, we don’t know who the real investors are, we don’t have an address for them and I’d also like to know more about the assets supporting Crown Hydro.”

“Who’s behind Crown Hydro is not an issue in this public hearing,” said Savelkoul. After being pressed further about the identity of Crown’s investors Savelkoul said he “would address financial stability as we move forward.”

According to the presentation, Crown will work on modifying its FERC amendment proposal for the next 4-5 months and is planning to get its final draft into FERC for review in April. It hopes to receive its amended license in the fall of 2014 and begin construction shortly after.

Savelkoul admitted that timeline is optimistic and during the meeting he assured Park Board legal consul Brian Rice that Crown will be posting much more data on its website in the coming months.

“There will be much more to come,” said Savelkoul as he wrapped up the meeting.

To file a comment about the project with Crown, go to crownhydroproject.com or send a letter to Crown Hydro Project, P.O. Box 249, Maple Plain, MN 55359.

To file a comment with FERC, send a letter to:

Mr. Edward A. Abrams

Director, Division of Hydropower Administration and Compliance

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission

888 First Street NE, Washington, DC 20426.