The rushing waters of the St. Joseph River soon will supply some of Notre Dame’s electrical power.
By early 2022, water will start traveling through massive concrete tunnels along the river, turning 10 submerged turbines. The flow will mark the opening of the University’s 2.5-megawatt hydroelectric generation facility on the river dam in downtown South Bend.
After a few months of testing, electricity generated by the turbines will travel along underground transmission lines to campus —producing an estimated 7 percent of Notre Dame’s electrical needs and offsetting nearly 9,700 tons of carbon dioxide annually.
Hydropower cleanly captures the energy of falling water to generate electricity. Construction of the hydroelectric plant — like the creation of the St. Joseph Solar Farm, a 210-acre solar facility that Notre Dame and Indiana Michigan Power completed last year in Granger, Indiana — is another step toward Notre Dame’s commitment to become a carbon-neutral campus by 2050 and to reduce 2005 carbon emissions at least 65 percent by 2030, goals that University President Rev. John I. Jenkins, CSC, ’76, ’78M.A. announced in September. To date, Notre Dame has eliminated coal as an energy source and reduced its carbon emissions by 49 percent.
Power generation from the hydroelectric plant will vary. “Our control system is constantly looking at the river’s elevation. As the river gets higher, it will sequence more turbines on. And as the river starts to drop, it will sequence and back off,” explains Paul Kempf ’80, the University’s assistant vice president for utilities and maintenance. Kempf’s team will monitor and operate the plant remotely from campus.
The new plant sits below ground at Seitz Park, a city park on a downtown island located just across the river from Century Center and downstream from the bend in the river that gives the city its name. The longtime park — a favorite local site for concerts and public events created out of former industrial land — has been closed to the public since 2019 to allow for construction, but is expected to reopen later this year. Most visitors won’t know that a hydroelectric plant is at work beneath their feet.
The $30 million construction project has drawn curious spectators for months. Heavy equipment burrowed beneath the river to install the 14-by-16-foot concrete underground tunnels and the turbines. Workers have turned up old industrial debris — wooden timbers, chunks of concrete and the foundations of former factory buildings.
In 2016, University officials signed an agreement with South Bend and the city transferred a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission exemption to allow Notre Dame to operate a hydroelectric facility at the dam. The University holds a 50-year lease on the site — for $1 a year — that will commence in 2022.
The underground turbines are arrayed in rows two high and five across. Each pair is topped with a removable lid for maintenance access. Screens cover the intake channels to prevent logs and other debris from damaging the turbines. A screen cleaner — similar to a rake — will periodically send detritus down a bypass channel located just north of the plant.
This is the third iteration of power generation at the site. In 1842, not long before Father Edward Sorin arrived to found Notre Dame, three local entrepreneurs established the South Bend Manufacturing Company. They obtained a charter from the Indiana General Assembly to build a dam across the St. Joseph River and to sell water rights. The dam was completed by 1844, and factories and mills soon opened along the river and two mill races — the East and West races — using the water to turn wheels, run belts and power machinery. The city quickly became a major Midwestern manufacturing center.
By 1900, the city and its businesses were using cheap steam power to operate factories along the river and illuminate sections of the downtown business district. In that era, the East Race cooled steam-plant boilers and generators.
“Whatever South Bend is . . . or how it developed industrially, was driven right here,” Kempf says of the site. “This was the birthplace of South Bend, and of it being an industrial, Midwestern city.”
Kempf grew up in South Bend and remembers childhood bike rides to explore downtown and the ruins of the Oliver hydroelectric powerhouse near where Century Center stands today. That facility was in operation by 1905, generating electricity to run the Oliver plow factory, the Oliver Hotel and the Oliver Opera House, but it eventually was rendered obsolete and abandoned. Coal and other fuels emerged as dominant. The dam and the raceways became relics of the past.
The east mill race was filled in during the 1950s and ’60s, then re-excavated to create the East Race Waterway, a recreational whitewater rafting course. It’s served that function since 1984, and today businesses, homes and a riverfront trail system have sprung up nearby. A seven-story luxury condominium tower opened last year north of Seitz Park.
A fish ladder, completed in 1988, allows coho salmon and steelhead trout released at a Mishawaka fish hatchery to bypass the South Bend dam and swim down the river to Lake Michigan. Each year, fully grown fish use the ladder to return to the Mishawaka section of the river to spawn.
The hydroelectric facility won’t disrupt the fish ladder or the fish, Kempf says. And fish will be able to use its bypass channel as an alternate route in both directions.
Notre Dame contributed $1 million to the city to renovate Seitz Park with fresh landscaping, a performance area, a new entrance and a public building with restrooms. A portion of the “South Bend River Lights” sculpture that was placed in storage during the project will be restored.
University officials say the plant will offer students opportunities to explore environmental issues, problems in civil engineering and related fields. Engineering students toured the site during construction.
“We wouldn’t be doing this if, at the end of the day, we weren’t getting to a win-win-win situation,” says Tim Sexton ’90, ’94M.S., Notre Dame’s associate vice president for public affairs. “This is a win for Notre Dame from a green-energy perspective, for the city of South Bend in reducing our carbon emissions, and for the residents of South Bend, because there’s going to be a beautiful park.”
Margaret Fosmoe is an associate editor of this magazine.