hydroelectric power

Long before French settlers arrived on the river’s south bend to trap wildlife along the shores, the Potawatomi called the river Sagwa.   Sagwa means “mystery river” and refers to the legend of visitor who would appear to the native people.  Sagwa sounds feminine, like the river herself, who is curvy and whose mostly calm surface belies a strong undercurrent. 

I learned about the legend of Sagwa from my friends, Gabrielle Robinson and Mike Keen.  While researching the history of the river, Gabrielle learned about an innovative hydroelectric project started in the early 80’s which had been abandoned.  Mike mentioned an educational component to the design that would make the project a double-win for the City.  “You should work to re-ignite projects like that,” Mike told me.

While working on a degree in Liberal Studies at IUSB, a class taught by Jerry Hinnefeld in 2007 had students researching topics on energy.   Looking for answers about the 1980’s hydro project, I made multiple calls to the county city building; most folks had never heard of the project until finally I talked to Gary Gilot, who suggested I call John Fisher, senior engineer at Lawson-Fisher.

John not only knew about the project, he was its chief architect and was thrilled to have someone show interest in his nearly-forgotten project.  When he showed me the beautiful colored pencil drawings that had been tucked away for over 20 years, he was like a kid showing his mom his best artwork for her refrigerator.  Not only had the City planned to install a small hydro generator, but an even larger 1.8 megawatt facility.  The coolest part about the bigger project was a below-water level public concourse with windows on either side that would allow visitors to see the turbines turning on one side and fish going up the ladder on the other.

Armed with this information from John, I not only presented my research to my classmates, but I took my slide show on the road and showed it to anyone who would watch and listen.  A blog site, letters to the South Bend Tribune, meetings with Congressman Donnelly’s office and radio essays later, I was appointed to South Bend’s Green Ribbon Commission by Mayor Steve Luecke. Our commission was the impetus for South Bend’s Municipal Energy Office, who, under the leadership of Jonathan Burke brought the little generator, nicknamed Little Gennie, to her intended home on the East Race.

The river has a long history of sustaining the people who interacted with her.  I am proud of the part I had in re-igniting our embrace of her potential.


Workers from Koontz-Wagner guide “Little Gennie”, the 62.9 kilowatt generator, into her penstock

She languished in a warehouse at the South Bend Airport, gathering dust while her precision-tooled bearings flattened, her seals became damaged, and her internal parts corroded from disuse.

Twenty nine years is a long time for a girl to wait for a date, but for South Bend’s lovely hydro generator, Thursday, August 23, 2012 was a day to celebrate.  “Little Gennie”, as the small generator came to be known by the South Bend Municipal Energy Office, arrived for her date newly re-furbished and gleaming cobalt blue against a clear sky.  As the St Joe River roared over the dam, workers from Koontz-Wagner carefully lowered Little Gennie into her penstock (silo) on the East Race where she will soon begin tapping 62.9 kilowatts of energy from the river’s flow. 

Jon Burke, director of the South Bend Municipal Energy Office, deserves great praise for working tirelessly with Indiana Michigan Power and other entities to get this project done.  In addition to securing sources and resources to bring Little Gennie back to her original working condition, Mr. Burke also engineered an agreement with Indiana Michigan Power to allow the City to use the electricity she produces.

Testing on equipment, including a special vacuum pump, will occur over the next couple of weeks.  Please plan on attending a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Wednesday, September 26th at 11:00 a.m. at the East Race where Mayor Pete Buttigieg will oversee the start-up of Little Gennie; the pretty girl in blue  who was almost forgotten.

Great news on the hydro front and for everyone who has been longing to support green energy in South Bend!  At long last, after many months of difficult negotiations between I & M and the  City of South Bend, a plan is emerging for not just the installation of the 63 kW turbine (formerly thought to have only a capacity of 45 kW) but for the construction of a utility-scale hydro-electric facility as well!  This means, for my regular blog readers, that the bigger hydro project (now estimated to be able to produce 1.78 Mega Watts) will finally become a reality on the East Race of our fair River.  City officials will soon be meeting with high-level representatives from I&M to craft a final arrangement to fund and integrate this project into the grid.

What can citizens and business of South Bend do to expedite this process?  In the near future, you will have the opportunity to sign up for a “green energy tariff”.  This tariff, which would amount to a few extra cents per kwh on your utility bill, will help to fund the construction of the large hydro generator.  With enough forward-thinking businesses and home-owners saying “yes!” to renewable, clean, sustainable energy generated in our River, construction on this project could begin by as early as 2013. In addition to the construction jobs this project will create, the facility will generate between $1.2 and 1.4 million dollars of electricity per year and place South Bend on the map for renewable energy.

At last night’s swearing-in ceremony at the Century Center, South Bend’s new Mayor, Pete Buttigieg opened his speech with a nod to South Bend’s history of harnessing power from the St Joe River.  Mr. Buttigieg then went on to inform the crowd of over 600 that the City has plans to re-visit utilizing hydroelectic power from the river coursing on the other side of the tall windows of the Great Hall.  This is indeed heartening and a hopeful sign for our City’s future.

Moving South Bend Towards a Sustainable Future

In response to the City’s Green Ribbon Commission as well as South Bend’s commitment to reduce energy consumption and to look for alternative sources of energy, the City of South Bend hired Jonathan Burke to the newly created position of Municipal Energy Director.  A native of Michigan, Mr. Burke worked for 28 years building sustainable buildings and managing property in Maryland. There he advanced many initiatives to promote sustainable building management in the areas of energy use and equipment optimization.  Mr. Burke, whose position is funded by a portion of a federal sustainability grant awarded to the City, began work in September of 2010.  In an effort to determine how the City can save money by way of reducing its energy use, he has been tirelessly “kicking the tires and looking under the hood” of municipal buildings.  He is also keenly interested in alternative energy sources, including the hydroelectric capacity of the dam at Century Center.  A strong supporter of all things sustainable, Mr. Burke is also working with IUSB Center for a Sustainable Future, the Unity Gardens, the South Bend Community Garden movements and other organizations to help make South Bend the greenest city in Indiana.


Kathleen and I attended the IURC field hearing on net-metering last Monday evening at the County-City building. Here is my summary.

1. The IURC has failed to change their rules enacted in 2005. The 2005 rules (regulations) were obviously (to me) written by the power industry to limit and control net-metering in Indiana.

2. According to the comments given to the IURC commissioners, it is a no-brainer to change the regulations to provide an economic incentive for individuals, schools, businesses and municipalities to begin net-metering. Many states have improved their economies by allowing for sensible net-metering. The comments were from engineers, electricians, home owners, city officials, state elected officials and people who own and operate businesses providing alternate energy (PV, anaerobic digesters, wind turbine, biomass); these are not wing nuts but practical people. There was even a representative of mall owners/managers asking for net-metering.

3. The state House has passed bipartisan bills since 2005 establishing more reasonable net-metering policies, and they die in the Senate. There is another bi-partisan bill this General Assembly co-sponsored by Ryan Dvorak, state Representative, and supported by John Broden, state Senator. Both spoke at the hearing.

The state Senate is “illiterate about net-metering” according to Rep. Ryan Dvorak. Although Dvorak didn’t say so, I assume key Senate members are deaf to everyone but power industry lobbyists. If the ignorant Senators heard the testimony last night, they would change the legislation immediately based on the evidence. The IURC commissioners after these three field hearings must be very well informed — whether they will change the rules or not is another story.

4. Net-metering is not selling electricity to power companies but earning credit at retail pricing for power generated and used. Surplus energy beyond your own use is not purchased by the power company. There is a power selling framework, but it is not called net-metering. The power selling framework may be FITs (Feed-In Tariffs).


5. The current rules make it financially and politically difficult if not impossible for the City of South Bend to build a hydro-electric plant to generate power for the city’s water treatment plant. Reasonable net-metering regulations would make the hydro-plant a no-brainer. Now, individuals and organizations which generate their own electricity usually don’t net-meter because it is economically impractical to join the grid in Indiana.

Here is how the power industry in Indiana contains net-metering using the IURC rules.

~ No more than a 17kw generator is allowed. According to the IndyStar/Indianapolis Star, the regulatory power generation limit is 10kw/month. A commenter at the South Bend hearing said modern homes use 1000-5000 kw/month.
~ No market area, which for I&M would be southwestern Michigan and northwestern/central Indiana, as a whole can net-meter more than 0.1% of the historical total summer peak power used in that area.
~ No aggregation of meters for the purpose of net-metering.
~ Monthly connection fees, initial installation charges and required equipment costs diminish and lengthen the ROI (return on investment). For instance, power companies frequently require two special meters to measure incoming and outgoing electricity rather than a single meter which is reversible. The single meter is $189 with no special requirements to install. The two-meter installation costs from $1500 to $2500 dollars according to the power company you are dealing with. Both types of meters are manufactured by Seimens.
~ Businesses are excluded from net-metering. Only homes and schools are allowed to net-meter. Power companies can allow businesses to net-meter, but inclusion is solely at the discretion of the power company; otherwise they are excluded.

South Bend’s proposed hydro-electric generator would:

~ generate 250kw and the IURC limit is 10kw;
~ generate 1/3 of the limit for our entire I&M market area;
~ aggregate 9 meters, and the IURC allows just 1 meter;
~ be excluded from net-metering under current rules.

Arguments supporting restrictive rules in Indiana were thoroughly discredited or disproved by testimony at the hearing. I can’t tell you how exciting it was to hear what people and businesses are doing in other states for themselves and their communities and what Indiana citizens and businesses are doing in spite of current regulations, yet I was depressed to think the state Senate and IURC will probably do nothing to encourage net-metering in Indiana.

Here is a informative article from the IndyStar/Indianapolis Star, a fairly conservative news organization.

btw, the audience erupted into applause after my comments to the commissioners. I was stunned but pleased. I believe I said twice during my comments that I represented the SJVGreens so we garnered good PR out of the hearing. There were activists from the central region of Indiana including CAC at the hearing.

Tom Brown
St. Joe Valley Greens

Tonight in South Bend, the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission held the third of three state-wide public hearings on net metering.  Currently, Indiana lags far behind the rest of the country in how investor-owned utility companies such as Northern Indiana Public Service Company and Indiana Michigan Power handle renewable energy produced by customers.  For example, in some states customers receive a check from their utility companies for any excess energy they may send to the grid from their home or business’ solar or wind generator.  However, in good old coal-burning Indiana, net metering for renewable energy is limited to a capacity of 10 kilowatts with energy-generating customers receiving a credit at a fraction of what utilities charge customers drawing from the grid.  As we learned from the testimonies tonight, current regulations also allow utilities to charge nebulous “connection” fees to customers with wind or solar generators; as a result, these Hoosiers who are trying to do the right thing by the environment are actually PAYING to send their excess renewable energy to the power companies’ grids, where they in turn sell it at huge mark-up.  Local and international businesses are having a hard time selling their renewable energy products in Indiana due to the poor rate and indeed sometimes negative rate of return. 

(This should come as no surprise from a state that relies on coal for 90% of its power.  The coal industry has such a stranglehold on Indiana it somehow got the state to allow the construction of a monstrous, coal-fired power plant at the front door of Clifty Falls State Park.   The majestic view of the Ohio River beheld by Eleanor Roosevelt while standing on the balcony at the park’s inn now looks over the machinations of the coal-burning industry.  The three ungodly high smoke-stacks loom over the entire park and can be seen for miles in any direction. 

Coal obviously rules Indiana).

Urging the commission to support changes to the state’s net metering regulations, local and state representatives, homeowners, green technology business owners, laborers and representatives from the League of Women Voters, the Green Party, the Sierra Club and IUSB’s Center for a Sustainable Future pointed out how progressive net metering is good for the environment and the economy. 

Net metering would make South Bend’s installation of the hydro-electric generator on the dam at Century Center an economically feasible venture with an estimated return on investment in half the time without net metering.

Every speaker at tonight’s hearing supported revising net metering regulations in order to encourage businesses, local governments and home owners to invest in renewable energy.   This cross-section of our community thinks it’s an idea whose time has come.  Let’s hope the IURC agrees.

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