Cooks know Weisenberger Mill for its high-quality flour, cornmeal and baking mixes. Tourists like the century-old mill’s scenic location on South Elkhorn Creek.
Now Weisenberger Mill has another claim to fame: It is demonstrating new renewable energy technology that could revolutionize small hydroelectric plants.
The mill has been generating some of its electricity since 1989. That was when the Weisenberger family, which built the mill in 1913 to replace one it had operated there since the Civil War, partnered with David Brown Kinloch, a Louisville engineer, to install a small power generator on one of its two old mechanical turbines.
The generator was never very efficient, both because of its design and the creek’s erratic water flow. But in the past couple of decades, technology has improved and Kinloch has learned a lot more about how to use it.
He is president of Shaker Landing Hydro Associates, which a decade ago bought and renovated Kentucky Utilities’ circa 1927 hydroelectric plant at Lock and Dam No. 7 on the Kentucky River near Harrodsburg, which had been shut down in 1999.
Shaker Landing Hydro now operates the 2.04-megawatt plant in partnership with Salt River Electric Cooperative in Bardstown, generating enough electricity to power about 1,100 homes in its service area.
Kinloch said he was working with Potencia Industrial, a Mexican company that is a leading manufacturer of variable-speed turbines for wind-power facilities, and it wondered why hydroelectric plants couldn’t use them, too. Potencia wanted to test the idea, and Kinloch suggested Weisenberger Mill.
“This was the ideal site, because it had an existing low-efficiency system,” he said, making it easier to measure efficiency improvements.
The Weisenbergers, Shaker Landing Hydro and Potencia got a $56,000 U.S. Energy Department grant to do the test in partnership with Kentucky Utilities and the University of Kentucky’s Center for Applied Energy Research, which gathered and analyzed data comparing the old and new generators.
Data from the recent installation showed the variable-speed generator solved the Weisenberger system’s biggest problem, which was that power production slowed or stopped when the difference between water levels above and below the mill’s dam decreased.
“Now we can always keep the turbine at its maximum efficiency, and by doing that we can make more power,” Kinloch said. “The replacement of that generator increased the output here by 96 percent.”
The generator is now supplying about half the mill’s electricity, said owner Mac Weisenberger. And soon, the 50-kilowatt system could provide all of it.
There are plans to install a fire-suppression system to make it safer for the generator to run all night as well as during the day when the mill is open. Also, the second old turbine is being refurbished to provide mechanical power to assist the milling machinery, most of which is at least as old as the 104-year-old building.
Kinloch and his partners soon plan to use variable-speed generator technology in two 2.64-megawatt hydroelectric plants planned for the Kentucky River. The first will begin construction July 1 at Lock and Dam No. 12 in Estill County. A year after it is operating, Shaker Landing Hydro plans to start work on a similar plant at Lock and Dam No. 14 in Lee County.
Shaker Landing Hydro and its financial partners, which Kinloch could not yet disclose, plan to build the two $8 million plants and sell the power they produce to Jackson Energy Cooperative, which serves 15 Eastern Kentucky counties. Each plant will produce enough electricity to power about 1,200 homes.
Kinloch said he is working with Wright Concrete of Pikeville to build those projects as part of a commitment to keep as much of the work as possible within the region. “We’re trying to do everything local and create jobs in Eastern Kentucky,” he said.
“Hydro is never going to completely power Kentucky,” Kinloch said. “But us doing some renewable energy projects opens the way for other renewables in Kentucky that have tremendous potential.”
Kentucky is behind neighboring states in both solar and wind development, Kinloch said. But with costs of both technologies falling rapidly, the use of renewable energy will keep growing despite the Trump administration’s preference for fossil fuels.
“There are a lot of people making money on this now and they are not going to let it go away,” he said. “We feel like we’re out plowing the fields, getting things ready for when the other renewables come in in a big way, and they will.”