Making waves: proposed Mississippi River turbine stalled

The turbine would produce 3 megawatts of power using hydro energy off St. Anthony Falls.

Devin Henry

The Crown Hydro project, a proposed hydropower turbine located at St. Anthony Falls in the Mississippi River, has been stalling for nearly a decade, and a 5-4 vote against the project last December by the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board sheds doubt on its future.

The project is simple on paper. Install an underground turbine near the Falls and create hydropower with the capability to fuel up to 2,500 homes. But what the project entails is so much more.

The Plan

Initial rumors of a project first started in the 1980s, said Crown Hydro President Tom Griffin , but it wasn’t officially licensed until 1999, when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission gave its seal of approval.

The project has since been in limbo between various regulatory measures, or, as Griffin said, “federal this, federal that, state this, state that.”

But should the plan ever come to fruition, the concept is simple.

The $12 million project would consist of converting part of the Mill Ruins Park along St. Anthony Falls into an underground water turbine, taking water from the falls underground, converting its energy to electricity and expelling it back into the river out another canal.

Griffin said the final project would create about three megawatts of electricity, enough to power 2,000 to 2,500 homes in the area.

Xcel Energy has a 20-year “power purchase agreement” with Crown Hydro, meaning it would buy the produced energy and distribute it, Griffin said.

Components of the project have already been built; the turbine and the generator, worth more than $1.5 million together, are complete and in the city, Crown Hydro spokesman Rob Brown said.

Pete Weiss , associate director of applied research at the University’s St. Anthony Falls Laboratory , said hydropower has weathered controversy just like many other forms of energy.

Some people, he said, contend hydropower, and what goes into cultivating it, is as bad for the environment as nuclear power. Others say it’s simply a source of free energy.

“The water is falling, and you can harness that for free energy,” he said.

The Problems

But not everyone has signed on to the idea.

Various controversies surround the project, including the idea that the plant would take water away from the attraction of water flowing over St. Anthony Falls.

Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board Commissioner Walt Dziedzic opposed studying the plan on the grounds that it might ruin the aesthetics of the area.

“I would hate to be part of anything that did away with the falls,” he said.

Brown said Crown Hydro would take little water from St. Anthony Falls, which can flow at nearly 30,000 cubic feet per second at some times in the year, but the turbine would only require a pressure of 150 cubic feet per second to operate, he said.

Furthermore, the project would shut down should water levels drop too low, or during the day when people observe the river.

“If the river drops, we’re out of business,” he said.

Still, Dziedzic said the risks outweigh the benefits of a plant producing only three megawatts of power.

He cited Xcel Energy’s nearby Riverside power plant, which produces 700 megawatts of power, as a better example of how to be more productive and eco-friendly. The plant is converting from coal to natural gas within the year.

“Alternative energy at any price is not what we’re after,” he said, in reference to Crown Hydro.

The Park Board

The Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board voted down the study that would look further into the project in December.

Dziedzic was one who voted against it.

“With the dangers in the project, I’m not the least bit concerned that I’m against it,” he said. “I think the project is dead in the water.”

Griffin said he disagreed with the board’s decision.

“In politics, sometimes what appears to be unreasonable triumphs over that which is reasonable,” he said.

Crown Hydro itself volunteered $250,000 to fund the study, as well as an offer of $300,000 a year to the Park Board should the project be accepted, Brown said.

Despite foregoing the study, the board has decided to continue considering the project.

Brown said Crown Hydro has never made a formal presentation to the board to plead its case.

“The commissioners have turned a green energy issue into a political football,” he said.

Griffin said he hopes to take the issue back to the board in August or September.

“If things don’t work out in the first inning, you go to the next inning,” he said.