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Notre Dame dedicates new hydroelectric facility on river

Notre Dame dedicated its new hydroelectric facility, called ND Hydro, on the dam of St. Joseph River in downtown South Bend last week.

The 2.5 megawatt facility is situated along the riverbed beneath Seitz Park and has been generating power for the University since its completion in May.

A statement announcing the plant’s dedication said that it brought Notre Dame one step closer to its sustainability goals.

“As a source of clean, renewable energy, the state-of-the-art facility will generate an estimated 7 percent of the electricity for campus and offset 9,700 tons of carbon dioxide annually, benefiting both the University and surrounding community,” the statement said.

Assistant vice president of utilities and maintenance Paul Kempf said that plans for ND Hydro have a long history.

“This dates back to around 2010, when we were working on our long-range plan for utilities,” Kempf said. “One of the things we were looking at during that time was how to reduce our carbon footprint.”

While exploring different options for green energy, the University contacted the city to re-open negotiations into use of the St. Joseph River dam. 

“We were aware of the fact that the city had, back in the ’80s, gotten an exemption from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC),” Kempf said. “The city had long thought that they would use that permit to find a third party who could make a profit venture out of producing electricity and potentially generate some income for the city as well. As it turns out, over a 30-year period, no such parties came forward.”

But the University stepped up, hoping to make a long-term investment for future carbon reductions — and FERC transferred the exemption to Notre Dame. 

The University aimed to maximize energy output, without compromising the integrity of the surrounding environment, but the site was also small in size, so the project required extensive planning. After years of permitting and design, construction commenced in the summer of 2019.

“It’s a different design of turbine, it’s unique. This is the first installation in North America of that turbine and it’s the largest installation in the world,” Kempf said. ND Hydro uses a new low-cost, modular turbine technology from Voith, a German manufacturer of hydro solutions. 

Hydroelectricity differs from solar, considered the more traditional green energy source. 

“The solar array sounds big because it’s 20 megawatts, but the problem with solar is that 12 hours a day, it doesn’t do anything,” Kempf explained. “It’s the tortoise and the hare in a way. Solar is the one that, when the sun’s bright and the sky is clear, man, you’re making a lot of energy. But when the clouds come out, or the sun goes down, you get nothing, and the hydro project tends to just sit there and just keeps going and going and going.”

The design team kept their mindsets on these long-term benefits and also prioritized protecting the nature and wildlife surrounding the facility.

“It’s an environmentally friendly turbine in the sense that there’s no oil involved,” Kempf explained, “So if you had a bearing or something like that leak, you’re not going to put any oil into the river.”

Additionally, the hydro facility is actually buried underneath the park. 

“The use of the whole park space came back so there’s no open channels, everything is buried, so you can’t see most of what we’ve done,” Kempf explained. “You can literally walk right over the top of all of this sort of stuff.”

While construction continued, Kempf said the University was careful to listen to the input of local stakeholders and environmental groups, including the Indiana Department of Natural Resources  (DNR) and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.

“The DNR, in particular, was about fish migration, and we will protect the fish so that they don’t get injured going through the turbines. So we designed it to be fish-friendly,” Kempf said. “I certainly learned way more than I ever expected to learn about fish.”

After a little less than three years of construction, the facility was finished this past May and ran throughout the summer. 

Kempf, a life-long resident of South Bend, reflected on the project. He said the facility ties the city’s past to its future.

“[South Bend’s] industrial growth dates back to when the dam was built in 1844,” Kempf said. “There were all these little factories that used hydropower … they used the water to spin water wheels that turned into mechanical energy to make textiles … this carried on until about the 1900s when that mode of industry kind of died.”

Kempf recalled another chapter in South Bend’s hydroelectric history.

“And then there was a preeminent farm implement manufacturer in South Bend called the Oliver Plow Company. And Mr. Oliver bought the whole West property on the side of the river he actually built a hydroelectric plant that powered his factories,” Kempf said. “He owned the hotel in town. He owned the opera house in town. So a good part of downtown and his factory fed off of this and that ran until probably the late 50s and early 60s.”

Kempf said that by opening ND Hydro, Notre Dame has become a part of the dam’s story.

“This is sort of the third coming of hydropower to South Bend,” Kempf said. “This resource, this dam that was built in 1844, has sort of blossomed and wilted and this is the third time to put it back to good use.”

With the hydro facility completed, the University continues to search for different ways to reduce its environmental impact. 

“This is just one lever we’ve pulled of a number,” Kempf said. “When you think about how you would invest your money, you build a diversified portfolio. And so the world is out there trying to decide what’s the best way to green the world and reduce carbon. I think our philosophy has been to have a diverse portfolio of assets that help us because they all do have different benefits and none of them are perfect, right?”

Kempf said that the burden to reduce the University’s carbon footprint needs to be believed by every member of the community.

“What’s still really important, that I think people sometimes forget, is that each and every one of us needs to make a commitment to use less energy,” he said. “There’s nothing that does more to reduce carbon footprint than eliminating energy that never has to be produced.”

Contact Kelsey Quint at kquint@nd.edu

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