Small-Scale Hydropower: An Inside Look at Making Renewable Energy

Sarah Hill-Nelson, co-owner of the Bowersock Mills and Power Co. in Lawrence, Kan., talks about low-impact hydropower and the great potential of this type of renewable energy.

  • Small hydropower
    The Bowersock Mills and Power Co. is a small hydropower plant in Lawrence, Kan., that is certified as a low impact hydroelectric facility. This is a “run of river” plant, meaning that it doesn’t significantly alter the river’s flow.
  • Sarah Hill-Nelson
    Sarah Hill-Nelson is co-owner of the Bowersock Mills and Power Co., along with her father, Stephen Hill. Her great, great grandfather completed the current dam in 1878.
  • Hydropower generator
    Sarah Hill-Nelson shows off one of the plant’s seven generators. The plant is rated at 2.35 megawatts (MW). On a good day, it produces enough electricity to power about 1,800 homes.
  • Hydropower turbine
    Bowersock Power is currently working on a proposed expansion of its facility. This turbine will be used in that project if it’s approved. Steven Chu, the Secretary of Energy, has estimated that similar hydropower projects at existing dams across the United States could produce 70 gigawatts (GW) of renewable energy. That’s the equivalent of about 70 nuclear power plants or 100 coal-fired plants.
  • Hydropower plant generator
    This governor works as a safety mechanism to keep the turbine from turning too quickly. It works purely on mechanical energy, no electricity required.

  • Small hydropower
  • Sarah Hill-Nelson
  • Hydropower generator
  • Hydropower turbine
  • Hydropower plant generator

Hydropower is a major source of renewable energy, and it’s not just big dams that are supplying all the power. Some are small, low-impact hydropower plants, such as the Bowersock Mills and Power Co. in Lawrence, Kan. This small hydroelectric facility on the Kansas River  is planning to expand — a move that would triple the dam’s power production with almost no additional environmental impact. Here’s a conversation with Sarah Hill-Nelson, who is a co-owner of the plant and has been running the business for seven years. She talked to us about how hydropower works, the business of selling renewable energy, and why she loves her job. 

Hydropower History

How much electricity does the Bowersock plant produce?

In an average year we produce about 11 million kilowatt hours (kWh). The plant is rated at 2.35 megawatts (MW). On a good day, we make enough electricity to power about 1,800 homes.

How long has it been in your family?

My great, great grandfather, J.D. Bowersock, completed the current dam in 1878. It was in our family until 1923, when it was taken over by another business partner. My dad bought it back into the family in 1972 and it’s been with us ever since.

What do you like most about your job?

Glen Graham
3/26/2010 7:40:17 AM

What an interesting article. Here in England there are plenty of sites that could be used for small scale hydro, but it's just not taken up for some reason. Sounds like a similar thing in the U.S - that's strange in both countries when you think of the long-term payback. I mean, no coal or nuclear plant is going to last 100 years is it? Right as I write this our local river is high just now and is running straight into the sea with not one single watt of energy being utilised - and Gigawatts going free! What a waste!

Linda Pierucki
3/19/2010 11:33:28 AM

Here in Michigan, we have over 300 abandoned former hydro plants. I live 500 feet from a millpond dam with about 14 ft of constant 'head'. Yet the push is on here to remove all of these dams to restore free flow to all of the rivers. This millpond has been dammed for over 150 years and has generated valuable wetlands upstream. The USACE now owns the dam due to stepping in to replace it 30 years ago-and our electrical power costs have skyrocketed over 100% in less than ten years-partially because of a mandate to use more renewable power sources. We've seen tons of $$ wasted on wind power, solar, etc - none of which is economically feasible here. We pay top dollar for natural gas because no one is interested in allowing a pipeline into the state. We HAVE to generate with coal, yet are denied permits for clean coal plants. Michigan small manufacturing plants in the area have actually closed because they could not afford to pay for their power needs and still make a profit. How in the world do you rectify such a situation? We need the power, the dam is in place and in good condition. A simple rebuild of the old stone sluiceway built by the original mill owners would likely suffice to handle generation. What do you do when the EPA, The Clean Water people and the enviro-religions conspire to drive residents out by denying the right to generate cheaper, clean power??? There are at least 10 other dams as large on this river before it reaches Lake Erie . . .none in generation!

Fran Tracy
3/19/2010 8:10:47 AM

This is an excellent article. I think the last part is the most important. SINCE THE DAMS ARE ALREADY IN PLACE, WHY AREN'T WE PUTTING POWER PLANTS ON EACH ONE OF THEM? That technology is already developed and is a 24/7 production instead of depending on sun or wind which are more intermittent. Fran



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