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Proposal for turbines at St. Anthony Falls is already generating plenty of opposition

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
The Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board and the Minneapolis City Council are concerned the project threatens the continued redevelopment of the area for parks and historic interpretation on the west bank of the river.

A Minneapolis-based company thinks its proposal for a new hydroelectric facility at St. Anthony Falls is exactly what the region is seeking: renewable and sustainable energy that could replace electricity now being generated by fossil fuels.

At the spot where the city’s industrial founders used water power to make Minneapolis the flour milling capital of the world, Crown Hydro has proposed “to provide clean energy for generations to come,” by redirecting Mississippi River flows to new turbines located near the now-mothballed navigation lock, the company states in promotional materials touting the project. 

So what’s not to like? When an initial version of the plan was first introduced nearly 25 years ago, said Crown Hydro CEO William Hawks, “it was balloons and hot dogs.”

But that was two-plus decades and at least two iterations of the project ago. Now, at least according to some local governments and some residents, there’s quite a bit not to like.

The Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board and the Minneapolis City Council said last week that they have major concerns with the plan. For one, the project threatens the continued redevelopment of the area for parks and historic interpretation on the west bank of the river. Another concern: that construction of the underground water channels and installation of two 1.7 megawatt turbines could damage the sandstone and limestone foundations of the shoreline, including that under the Stone Arch Bridge.

A Minneapolis City Council member even raised the specter of the project causing “the total decimation of water flow over the falls. “It would make the falls dry for certain periods of the year,” said Council Member Jacob Frey at a meeting of the council’s Intergovernmental Relations Committee earlier this month.

The water-flow issue is in dispute. Crown Hydro proposes operating the turbines only during periods of average or above-average flows and shutting down during low-flow periods; it is a signatory to the Mississippi River System-Wide Low Flow Management Plan [PDF]. But raising the possibility of dry falls and a damaged Stone Arch Bridge is a fast way to counter Crown’s talking points, which include reducing carbon footprints and renewable energy.

A long history

The full City Council agreed with the Intergovernmental Affairs Committee recommendation to submit its concerns to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which decides to approve or deny applications such as Crown’s.

“Generally speaking, there needs to be more clarity regarding the full range of impacts to this historic area including noise, vibration, visual, structural and accessibility, among others,” the resolution stated. “This is a vital natural and historic resource area and this project is potentially disruptive to it — both during construction and operation.” 

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation board also voted Wednesday to submit its concerns to FERC — and to file a formal complaint over the way Crown Hydro’s application has been processed.  

The proposal has taken a long and winding path to even get this far in the FERC process. Technically, Crown’s application is an amendment to a previous license application. In 1999, Crown was granted exclusive rights to develop a hydropower facility in the Mill Ruins area of the river. Initially the turbines and generators were to be installed in the basement of the historic Crown Roller Mill Building, adjacent to the upper falls.  

Once considered one of Minneapolis’ finest mills, Crown Roller Mill stopped using water to power the mill in 1933 and stopped production in 1953. After a 1983 fire, the building was saved from demolition and renovated, complete with a reconstructed copper mansard roof. It’s now an office building.  

When a deal couldn’t be reached with current owners of the building, though, Crown Hydro amended its plan — with Park Board encouragement — to locate the turbines on land owned by the Park Board near the former Fuji-Ya Restaurant. After FERC ruled that eminent domain powers that are sometimes available to help power projects could not be used against parkland (and after negotiations between Crown and the park board failed), that request was denied by FERC in 2005.

Proposed site of the hydroelectric facility at St. Anthony Falls.
Crown Hydro, LLC
Proposed site of the hydroelectric facility at St. Anthony Falls.

The current proposal would place the turbine and powerhouse underground on Army Corps of Engineers property adjacent to the lock control building. An intake structure would be located on the riverbank side of the guide wall at the lock facility. After passing through the turbines, 40 feet below ground, water would flow through a new 16-foot diameter conduit that would snake beneath the Corps property and the approaches to the Stone Arch Bridge before being discharged back into the river.  

Hawks said he doesn’t fault the Park Board for not agreeing to the earlier plan, saying it lacks staff expertise that would have increased its comfort with overseeing a hydro project. “It’s the opposite with the Corps,” Hawks said. “They’ve done this all over the country. That’s why we feel good about it.” 

Hawks said that once built, visitors to the area “won’t even notice” the facility. The turbines are vibration free and can’t be heard over the flow of the water. Crown has an agreement to sell the power generated — enough to power more than 2,000 homes — to Xcel Energy, which operates a generating facility on the east bank of the falls. 

Hawks said he is prepared to answer the questions raised by commenters and FERC.

“That’s as it should be,” Hawks said. “But I can’t imagine there’s anything that would be a show-stopper.” If FERC gives approval, the $10 million project could be completed in six months. The turbine and generators have already been purchased, he said. 

Other projects also proposed

Another proposal to use water power for electricity is coming from the redeveloper of the Pillsbury A Mill, this one using the power generated to provide electricity to the new artists lofts being completed there. Another proposal to put turbines inside the lock, which closed to navigation in June, has been rejected by FERC but applicant Symphony Hydro is reapplying.

The Crown project has the support of the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation, according to Crown’s website, and has attracted kind words from some environmentalists. Opponents, however, have both procedural and substantive objections. 

Doug Verdier, of Minneapolis Park Watch, wrote that the project has changed so much since 1999 that Crown should be required to start with a new application and not be allowed to amend that earlier license. “It clearly is a new project and, as FERC has pointed out repeatedly, it should be submitted as a new project,” Verdier wrote on the Park Watch website. “An amendment of the existing license is not appropriate.” 

The Park Board wrote in 2013 that “Crown’s latest attempt to style a completely new project as a license ‘amendment’ is disingenuous at best. Crown has proposed a completely new project on a new site that requires a new headrace, tunnel and tailrace and it should be considered as such.” 

The Downtown Minneapolis Neighborhood Association is also opposed the project, partly because Crown’s existing license allows much larger diversions of river water than the company is now proposing. In a letter to FERC, the group also expresses worries about damage to the Stone Arch Bridge from tunneling through the sandstone and limestone. Both a dry falls and a damaged bridge could threaten one of the city’s tourist attractions, which has undergone massive and expensive renovation and restoration since the original license was granted, the neighborhood group states. 

Given that the group thinks there should be a new license application, plus its belief that Crown hasn’t been meeting FERC requirements and deadlines “and taking into account the actual and potential negative impact on the #1 tourist attraction in Minneapolis, the public good would be best served by terminating the existing Crown Hydro License,” wrote association board chair Chad DiDonato in November. 

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Comments (21)

  1. Submitted by Mark Byrnes on 08/25/2015 - 11:11 am.

    Now that there is no barge traffic, the series of locks aren’t needed. Seems like it would be a good time to consider building up the Ford Dam to fill in the gorge from the St Anthony Falls to the Ford Dam. It would create a large recreational reservoir and increase the total electrical productivity from the river.

    • Submitted by Joel Fischer on 08/25/2015 - 11:51 am.

      That may be…

      one of the worst ideas I’ve heard.

      Now that there is no barge traffic and no Ford plant that needs the energy produced by the dam, perhaps we can restore the only gorge on the Mississippi River to some semblance of natural.

    • Submitted by Brian Simon on 08/25/2015 - 12:42 pm.

      Better yet

      Demolish the Ford dam & restore the gorge as a natural attraction.

  2. Submitted by Mal Ibar on 08/25/2015 - 11:52 am.

    ‘total decimation’

    Council Member Jacob Frey is either pointing out a not very big problem, or he thinks that word means something it doesn’t.

  3. Submitted by Alan Muller on 08/25/2015 - 12:05 pm.

    Lots of questions….

    It’s good to see what looks like a balanced report, rather than cheerleading.

    Crown Hydro has a history of being rather devious, and I consider the FERC much too close to the energy industry to be trusted. So it’s good that people have a critical eye on this.

  4. Submitted by Bill Kahn on 08/25/2015 - 02:32 pm.

    Seems like Hawks and his company could have bought the Crown Roller Mill for a bargain price decades ago and built the original project with profit from the building and the power plant.

    It is not anyone else’s but Crown Hydro’s problem that they have their Canadian turbines and no valid permit to build their plant; they did it all wrong.

    CH lecturing folks about how they don’t understand is kind of entertaining. Everyone understands, but a team of Crown Hydro lawyers, engineers, and public relations professionals is doing their best to obfuscate things.

    This sort of swings on what the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies see as the priority for this section of the river. For a long time, the emphasis has been on recreation and historical resources, for as long or longer than Mr. Hawks’ company has been pushing this (Congress created the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area in 1988 http://www.nps.gov/miss/index.htm ).

    CH may argue that they are emulating historical activity on the river, but most of that activity has been history for a long, long time now that carp have nixed navigation upstream of St. Anthony Falls; nothing hydraulic is happening there but the Xcel plant across the river and the normal flow of the river.

    I like the idea of restoring it as a natural river, but it is not likely to happen.

    The effect on flow over the falls is well documented in the environmental analysis done years ago: it will change what is there now, an aesthetic resource enjoyed by many that this plant will reduce substantially, even with normal flow of the river whether CH is signatory to flow agreements or not.

  5. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 08/25/2015 - 07:49 pm.

    Perspective…

    If this is a good idea or not – I have no idea. However, we must keep in mind that many radical environmentalist would never be in favor or dams, hydro, and progress.

    • Submitted by Joel Fischer on 08/26/2015 - 08:15 am.

      It’s not radical…

      to want to restore or preserve a lost ecosystem and natural wonder.

      • Submitted by John Appelen on 08/26/2015 - 05:07 pm.

        Disagree

        Given that one is fighting a readily available clean energy source for aesthetics… It seems radical to me. There are a lot of waterfalls in the state.

        • Submitted by Bill Kahn on 08/26/2015 - 06:52 pm.

          Okay, so you have this nice falling water feature in your backyard patio, very soothing, and your neighbor installs a small micro-hydro turbine generator using your water feature to run their Malibu lights next door and, guess what? No more falling water. It was “readily available clean energy” for your neighbor, aesthetics be damned.

          The issue is the balance between uses on this pool of the Mississippi River. Excel has a hydro facility across the river on the same pool that could be made more efficient, but they have not done so. Xcel will buy all the power Crown Hydro generates if they are permitted to build, but who will buy back the aesthetics of St. Anthony Falls as it exists today? Why is it even on the table? Is there a cost/benefit analysis of these tradeoffs in the case Crown Hydro has made for a permit amendment?

          • Submitted by John Appelen on 08/26/2015 - 09:26 pm.

            Public Resource

            I am sorry, beauty must in the eye of the beholder. It just looks like a dam spillway to me. This is what we are discussing. Correct?
            https://shortstorysnapshots.files.wordpress.com/2010/10/imag0417.jpg

            Nothing like Gooseberry or Cascade Falls.

            It seems like it is a public resource that could be used for the public good.

            • Submitted by Joel Fischer on 08/27/2015 - 08:37 am.

              Research

              That “spillway” is the way that was decided upon in order to save the falls, because if they had been allowed to continue migrating upstream, the streambed geology would have eventually resulted in no more falls. I don’t think it is the most aesthetically pleasing option, but it is what it is.

              There was a concept plan brought forth a couple years ago that would have restored the falls to a more natural look, but with the spread of invasive carp, I have to wonder about the feasibility of such a plan.

              What we are talking about is a feature that is unique on the entire length of the Great River…a waterfall and gorge. It is what built Minneapolis, but we have used and abused it enough. Perhaps we can start to appreciate its natural unique-ness.

              • Submitted by John Appelen on 08/27/2015 - 05:42 pm.

                Thank Heavens for the artists and nostalgic folks. If analytical pragmatists like me were in charge it would be a very square,modern, dull, practical and antique white world…

                I mean a bridge that goes nowhere… What were they thinking. 🙂

                Best of luck keeping the water flowing over the natural man made falls.

                • Submitted by Joel Fischer on 08/28/2015 - 08:26 am.

                  I wish I knew what you’re referring to.

                  Which bridge are you talking about?

                  And the falls are already ‘man-made’, so I’m not sure what you mean by your last statement.

  6. Submitted by Mike Hogan on 08/25/2015 - 07:58 pm.

    Number 1?

    “…taking into account the actual and potential negative impact on the #1 tourist attraction in Minneapolis, the public good would be best served by terminating the existing Crown Hydro License.”

    Is that even accurate? The number one tourist attraction over the bars/clubs/stadiums of 1st Ave., or Minnehaha Falls and surrounding park, or Target Field?

  7. Submitted by joe smith on 08/26/2015 - 09:04 am.

    I guess if it is not solar/wind the Greenies will hate on any form of electric power. If Crown is not or cannot meet current regulations they shouldn’t be allowed to move forward. I think it hurts the conversation when in the last paragraph the author throws in there is belief “Crown hasn’t been meeting deadlines or regulations”, if that is true let’s see the evidence.

    • Submitted by Pat Berg on 08/26/2015 - 09:39 am.

      Read more carefully

      That wasn’t a statement by the author of the article. That was a reference to statements by the Downtown Minneapolis Neighborhood Association which was identified in the article as a statkeholder in the dispute.

      They’re the ones you need to go after if you feel that statement requires support.

  8. Submitted by Chris Johnson on 08/28/2015 - 12:32 pm.

    If hydro power is good…

    If you think adding hydropower at this location is a good thing — enough of a good thing that it overrides the economic and social benefits of the large number of visitors to the Stone Arch Bridge every day of the year — then why not just have Xcel increase the power output of their existing hydropower plant directly across the river from the proposed location? It draws from the same pool and flow, and uses the same vertical drop. There’s no need for some other company to spend millions to dig tunnels and construct a new power plant at all. For a lot less money, Xcel could do the job for us.

    The only reason these proposals like Crown Hydro’s even exist is because there’s a bizarre clause in state law that requires Xcel to buy any electricity they generate at a premium price and that price is also tax-payer subsidized for a period of time (10 years if I recall correctly, but I haven’t read the details recently). So Crown Hydro stands to make a nice profit simply because we taxpayers will insure they get more money per kilowatt hour sold to Xcel than Xcel can get for generating or selling the same amount of power.

    Personally, I think that because the St. Anthony Falls and Stone Arch Bridge area are both such a tourist attraction and boost the property values nearby, that building any additional hydropower capability there is a bad idea. But that doesn’t mean I’m opposed to hydropower in general. It would make more sense to add hydropower generation to the Ford Dam. It’s the same water flow, just further down the river.

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