Saturday, May 11, 2013

Bowersock officially opens $25 million power plant on the Kaw

By CHAD LAWHORN, The Lawrence Journal-World

There was much talk of rain dances Friday afternoon at the grand opening celebration for Lawrence-based Bowersock Mills and Power Co.'s $25 million hydroelectric power plant on the north bank of the Kansas River.

“When we began construction on this project, the Bowersock team systematically began sun dances,” Stephen Hill, an owner of the power company said, referring to the need for a dry period to build the plant on the Kaw. “Now that we’re done, we’ve shifted to rain dances. It hasn’t worked.”

Construction crews lost only 1 1/2 days of work because of weather during the nearly two-year construction period of the plant, Hill said.

But when the plant was ready to begin producing electricity in late November, there wasn’t enough water in the Kansas River to spin the turbines.

On Friday afternoon, at a ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by more than 100 people, two of the plant’s four turbines were spinning, thanks to recent spring rains. In fact, electricity production began on April 10, the birthday of Bowersock co-owner and president Sarah Hill-Nelson.

“Rain was the best birthday present I could have hoped for,” Hill-Nelson said.

The project, which is located at the north end of the Kansas River bridges in downtown, was lauded Friday by state and local officials as an example of how Kansas can further expand its renewable energy reputation.

“I think we now have a landmark in North Lawrence that will stand as a beacon of light for renewable energy in Kansas,” Mayor Mike Dever said.

The plant — along with Bowersock’s turn-of-the century hydroelectric plant on the south bank of the Kaw — sells all its electricity to the Kansas City Board of Public Utilities.

Don Gray, general manager for BPU, said the 25-year contract with Bowersock is an important part of the utility’s plan to increase its portfolio of renewable energy.

With the plant, the utility now gets 16 percent of its electricity from renewable sources. The Lawrence plant provides enough electricity to power about 5,000 homes in the Kansas City area, he said.

Friday’s grand opening marks the end of a long process for Bowersock and the Hill family. The plant has been under active design for the past five years, but its idea goes back much further.

The Bowersock company and its southern plant date back to Stephen Hill’s great-grandfather, J.D. Bowersock, one of the city’s first great industrialists, who used the cheap electricity to create a manufacturing empire along the Kaw.

As Hill and his team were designing the current plant, they came across a reminder of how long the idea of a plant on the north side of the river had been percolating: a set of plans for the project dating back to 1924.

“I know this was a dream of his,” Hill said. “To be able to complete this for him, it means a lot to the family, and I think it will mean a lot to the city in the years to come.”