South Bend and University of Notre Dame join forces to build an underground hydroelectric plant that will supply 7% of the electricity on campus.
By Bridget McCrea
South Bend, Ind., may be most widely known because of the presence of the University of Notre Dame, but a recent renewable energy project directly under a popular city park will put it on the map with a different crowd. Working with the university, South Bend Venues Parks & Arts recently broke ground on a 2.5-megawatt hydroelectric generation facility along the St. Joseph River.
The facility, which will primarily be underground, is expected to generate about 7% of the university’s electrical needs and offset about 9,700 tons of carbon dioxide annually. Falling water will generate the electricity, after which underground lines transmit the electricity to the campus. The hydro facility project is expected to be completed by 2021, and precast concrete plays a vital role in its success.
Reducing carbon emissions
Paul Kempf, Notre Dame’s assistant vice president for utilities and maintenance, said the facility is one facet of the school’s wide-ranging sustainability plan, which eliminates coal use in its power plant by the end of 2020 and cuts its carbon footprint in half by 2030. So far, the university has reduced its carbon emissions by 49%. The plan targets six key areas: energy and emissions; water; building and construction; waste; procurement, licensing and sourcing; and education, research and community outreach.
As part of its diversified approach to whittling down its footprint, the school looked at a dam built in 1844 during South Bend’s industrialization movement. In the early 1900s, a large farm equipment manufacturer purchased the adjoining land and built a hydroelectric facility there. The land was eventually rehabbed for recreational watersports and, later, a fish ladder was installed to support an upstream hatchery.
Fast-forward to 2019, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) – which had granted an exemption for the proposed plant – told South Bend that it had to either “use it or lose it.” Notre Dame, situated only two miles away, took an interest in the project.
“We pursued it and came to an agreement on the 50-year lease,” Kempf said. “In the end, it’s a carbon play. It’s also a great opportunity for us to partner with the city, which is something we’ve done on a number of other occasions, and build a stronger relationship between the university and South Bend.”
Precast provides shorter schedules, lower risk
During the project design phase, its owners wanted to minimize the impact on Seitz Park, under which the project is being installed. Precast concrete products are helping to minimize the closure while also providing quality, long-lasting materials.
Once finished, the park itself will be situated on top of the precast water channels and feature vending kiosks, a band shell, planting beds and various other amenities. For this reason, the city wanted to make sure its underpinnings were sturdy and strong. Working with engineers from KFI and Lawson Fisher, the project’s owners decided precast concrete was the best material for the application.
“Water will literally be racing beneath the feet of people who are using the park,” said Aaron Perri, executive director of South Bend Venues Parks & Arts. “For this reason, it was important that the precast be fabricated in a fashion that would allow all of these activities to happen on top of it, once the park was completed. The right combination of engineering expertise and building materials is making that happen.”
Marathon, Wis.-based County Materials Corp., manufactured box culvert sections for the channels. Steve Smart, technical resource engineer with County Materials, noted the installation speed on a plant that’s going to be positioned 25 feet below the St. Joe’s River made precast an essential element of the project. This culvert sections’ simple installation was a major selling point for precast in the space-constrained project.
“(The owner) wanted to be able to get the structure in the ground and backfilled without worrying about river-related issues,” he said.
Kempf agreed using precast was key for the project.
“We were looking for a means of shortening our schedule,” said Kempf. “Precast came into play both from a scheduling and from a risk perspective.”
The project includes three primary components: the entrance where the water comes in, the turbines located on the downside of the dam and a center section where precast concrete box culverts are used. The sections are being installed around the existing fish ladder, where pieces measuring 16-feet-wide-by-14-feet-tall form the plant’s long channels. There are 137 total sections weighing 25 tons each.
“With precast, the only thing you have to do onsite is put the pieces together,” said Kempf. “It’s a little easier than the cast-in-place concrete.”
Bigger and Better Than Ever
Once several permitting, property rights, and FERC exemption issues were addressed, which took about 12 months, the underground hydroelectric project broke ground and has since been running smoothly. Kempf sees it as a significant development not only for Notre Dame and South Bend, but for the nation as a whole.
“There aren’t many people doing hydro projects in the U.S., or anywhere in the world, right now, quite frankly,” said Kempf, who recently did a campus presentation on the third coming of hydropower to South Bend. “We’re not just building a hydro plant in the middle of nowhere; this dam has a major connection to South Bend.”
Perri concurred and said the city’s residents are looking forward to the reopening of their beloved park.
“It’s a small park, but pound for pound it’s one of the most popular parks in our city,” said Perri. “People certainly miss it, but it’s going to return bigger and better than ever.”
Bridget McCrea is a freelance writer who covers manufacturing, industry and technology. She is a winner of the Florida Magazine Association’s Gold Award for best trade-technical feature statewide.