Crown Hydro's plan for riverfront project resurfaces

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October 29, 2013
By: Ben Johnson
Park Board Commissioners are concerned Crown Hydro's proposal will cause St. Anthony Falls to dry up more frequently
Ben Johnson
Ben Johnson
With project under siege from federal government and local leaders, Crown Hydro will go public with latest proposal in mid-November

Mill District residents and local elected officials are anxiously awaiting details on Crown Hydro’s last-chance effort to build a hydropower facility on land adjacent to St. Anthony Falls in downtown Minneapolis.

Crown Hydro has been under pressure to move its project forward since June 2012, when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) initiated proceedings to revoke its license after 14 years of failed negotiations and political maneuvering.

“It was the wrong project, with the wrong partners, in the wrong place,” said Park Board President John Erwin at an Oct. 21 Mill District Neighborhood Association (MDNA) meeting.

Residents at that meeting spent a half hour discussing different strategies to shoot down Crown’s latest, and possibly last proposal. The new proposal moves the 3.2 megawatt facility 150 feet northeast, taking it completely off of Park Board land and onto US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) land. Otherwise the project remains essentially unchanged.

“This is the ideal location. This is even better on [USACE property] than it would’ve been with the Park Board because the Army Corps of Engineers really know what they’re doing,” said Bill Hawks, co-owner of Crown Hydro.

The Park Board has long blocked Crown’s plans. It believes that boring a new 930-foot long tailrace tunnel in a geologically fragile area underneath the Stone Arch Bridge could threaten some of the tens of millions of dollars of riverfront investment made in the area during the last decade. It also believes that drawing water from an area of the Mississippi River that already houses Xcel Energy’s 9.2 megawatt hydroelectric facility could potentially dry up St. Anthony Falls for stretches of time.

“From the Park Board’s perspective, we see this area as incredibly important to the whole city. We don’t want anything to jeopardize that,” said Erwin.

The Park Board has not always been strongly opposed to Crown Hydro. Hawks remembers receiving a warm reception when Crown first got its license from FERC in 1999.

“Back then it was hugs and kisses and this was really going to be something the Park Board really wanted,” said Hawks. “Then some misinformation got out, people started doing political things, and it got messy.”

Crown twice took to the state legislature in an attempt to get approval for the project that would effectively negate the Park Board’s authority, but a bill never reached the floor.

The two parties came close to sealing a deal to build underneath Park Board property by Mill Ruins Park in May 2011, but negotiations fell apart after late changes were made to the agreement. Since then, Crown Hydro has worked on and off with its engineering firm, Wenck Associates, and USACE to develop a plan without the Park Board.

Mid-November Meeting?

In a Sept. 27 letter to FERC, Crown Hydro said it would hold an initial joint meeting with all interested parties to review and discuss its latest proposal in mid-November.

Details on that meeting have yet to emerge. Hawks confirmed that he has a meeting tentatively scheduled for Oct. 31 with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and will begin trying to schedule a larger meeting with all stakeholders after that.

FERC is keeping the pressure on Crown. It has sent multiple letters asking Crown to clarify its timeline for submitting an amended application for a facility on USACE land.

“Within 90 days of holding your joint meeting, please file a detailed schedule for conducting or otherwise responding to all study requests, developing a draft amendment application, soliciting comments on the draft application, and filing a final application for Commission approval,” wrote Edward Abrams, director of hydropower at FERC, in an Oct. 9 letter.

Residents at the MDNA meeting on Oct. 21 and local officials have expressed concern that Crown would not give proper notice for the mid-November meeting. Hawks, however, says he is excited to present his proposal and anticipates a positive community reaction.

“I think everybody will be satisfied, I really do. I think you’re going to see a lot of healing going on,” said Hawks.

Stiff opposition

City Council Member Lisa Goodman (Ward 7) said that she is “vehemently opposed” to Crown Hydro, and City Council Member Diane Hofstede (Ward 3) said she is “very leery of what [Crown] is proposing.”

Nan Bischoff, a project manager at USACE, outlined 12 issues with Crown’s proposal that needed to be addressed in a November 2011 letter.

“I don’t think that [the concerns outlined] were necessarily anything that couldn’t be overcome, or answered, but I don’t think their engineering firm has had the money to address those yet,” Bischoff said in a recent phone conversation.

Hawks estimates that half of Crown’s original $20 million budget has already been spent just trying to garner approval.

“I don’t like to talk about it because I’m embarrassed. There’s people’s lives to think about and a lot of good engineers and good people who have been working on this thing and the money, it’s, well it’s just horrible. Horrible,” said Hawks.

Despite strong local opposition and an arduous permitting process ahead, Hawks thinks that construction could start as early as next fall and Crown Hydro could be in operation by summer 2015.

“Hydropower is beautiful. It will happen. I don’t see any way that it doesn’t happen this time,” he said.

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Crown Hydro’s proposal at a glance

  • Two 8.5-foot diameter pipes would draw a maximum of 1,000 cubic feet per second in the USACE lock and dam intake canal.
    • The water would travel through 930 feet of tailrace tunnel and be deposited just past the Stone Arch Bridge.
  • Two, 10-foot tall, 1.6 megawatt turbines would be placed 42 feet below ground in a powerhouse structure measuring 62 feet by 42 feet.
    • The turbines would only run at times of average or above average flow on the Mississippi River, generating an estimated 18,000 megawatt-hours (MWh) of electric energy per year, which could power approximately 2,000 homes.
    • Crown has an agreement in place to sell this energy to Xcel Energy.
  • A roughly 3,000-square-foot facility would be built on USACE property to house the generator and other technical equipment.