South Bend Municipal Energy Office

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.