• Podcast
  • Jan 24 2017

Power from a Partnership: UK & Weisenberger Mill

When you think about cutting-edge energy research, you probably don’t think about a flour mill, but that’s exactly what’s happening at Weisenberger Mill in Midway, Kentucky. The mill received a Department of Energy grant to pilot test the first variable-speed generator in a hydroelectric plant in the U.S. This is a technology that’s new to water power, but it has the potential—with off-the-shelf components—to help any hydroelectric plant boost their power production from 10 to 15 percent. The Weisenberger Mill saw a 96 percent increase in energy production.  

In this podcast, we learn about the mill’s history directly from owner Mac Weisenberger and his son Philip, and we learn about the generator from the man who installed it, Dave Brown Kinloch of Shaker Landing Hydro Associates. He partnered with Jim Neathery, who analyzed the data, at UK’s Center for Applied Energy Research (CAER). This is just one example of how CAER works with industry and community partners to test new technologies and promote energy efficiency. See more of the Weisenberger Mill at https://www.instagram.com/ukresearch/.

Power from a Partnership: UK & Weisenberger Mill - Podcast Transcript


Have you ever wondered who was doing the research that will impact your future? The research podcast lets you met those people, and learn how the University of Kentucky is exploring and strengthening our understanding of the world through research and discovery. 

Here's Alicia Gregory, director of Research Communications. 

Alicia: When you think about cutting-edge energy research, you probably don’t think about a flour mill, but that’s exactly what’s happening at Weisenberger Mill in Midway, Kentucky. Utilizing a variable speed power generator—a technology that’s new to water power, Weisenberger Mill partnered with industry and the University of Kentucky. But before we get into that, we’ll learn about the mill’s history directly from owner Mac Weisenberger and his son Philip.

Philip: I'm Philip Weisenberger, here at Weisenberger Mill. I'm the 6th generation out here and I started working here when I was about 12. I’d come out here every summer break, and next thing you know here I'm still here, years later. It really is a family operation in all sorts of ways, you know. We're family by blood but family by doing this for so long. It becomes part of who you are so.

The mill was started in 1865 by my great, great, great grandfather, who immigrated here from Botin, Germany. And then, he purchased a mill right here in this very location. And then in 1910 or 12, his son tore that mill down because it developed a crack in the side, and they ground up the stones to make the concrete to build this mill that’s here today. It was built in 1913. So the mill has kind of been passed down from generation to generation and we still use a lot of the same equipment, do things essentially the same way, the way we grind our product and things like that, so… In some ways things haven't changed here much in 100 years.

Mac: I'm Mac Weisenberger, with Weisenberger Mill. Yes, it's been a family venture since 1865 and still is. And it's been pretty difficult but we work every day at it and keep on doing what we do. What we do the best. In 1950 there was 5,000 mills in the United States, and now there’s 500.

I have 5 employees plus myself, and we all work together 5/5-and-a-half days a week and keep all the products going out the door. We manufacture flour and corn mill. We take raw wheat, local grain; wheat and corn within a 100 miles of here, and we grind the wheat and make flour and grind the corn and make corn mill. And we use all non- GMO corn.

Phillip: Most of our business is food service customers and we’ll sell that. And it goes to restaurants, schools, and other institutions like that. But then there is retail lines that you can buy in grocery stores as well, you know. So the grits are very popular and all the baking mixes, but you know the basic flour and corn meal have always been a mainstay of what we do here.

I guess we are a beneficiary of the local food movement in some ways. We've always been local, and local food has become very popular and here we are we're still making local foods, and so… But we always try to put out a quality product. That's our number one goal is, you know. Put out a good product and then stand behind the product. I think that’s really important. If there ever is an issue, you're there to fix that problem. And you know, our number one goal is to put out a quality product that people enjoy. Food is one of those items that if you have a good experience, you want to have it again the next time. So having a consistent quality of products is important.

Mac: Well we've always had turbines here. And that was built in with the Mill in 1913. And that's all they had to operate at that time was the water power. So the turbines were there and we ran the turbines up ‘til the mid to late 80's just-- on the line shaft, just belt to pulley, belt to pulley, to help the electric motors at that time.

We had the opportunity to put a generator to the turbine and the turbine turns the generator and makes electricity and we use the electricity to power the motors and stuff that turn the mill. And the nice thing about this one, it's variable speed and keeps it—keeps it at its maximum potential. And if we don't use the electricity it goes into the grid and we get credit for it when we do use it back, so that's been a real plus for us.

Philip: Dave has worked with us before in the past, you know. Back when I was a young kid, he helped refurbish this generator here in the mid 1980's, and then came to us with this project to improve this generator and be a little to test site. And to get UK involved to help us out was a great benefit for us to do that here.

It makes sense. You have water here that is totally clean energy that, from when the mill was built, that's how it was powered. And to harness that water power to generate electricity to help us run operations here now, 150 years later, is a great opportunity and makes a lot sense.

Alicia: The Weisenberger Mill received a Department of Energy grant to install the first variable-speed generator in a hydroelectric plant in the U.S. We’ll learn more about the generator from the man who installed it, Dave Brown Kinloch of Shaker Landing Hydro Associates. He worked with Jim Neathery, who analyzed the data, at UK’s Center for Applied Energy Research.

Dave: I'm Dave Brown Kinloch and I'm involved in developing uh small hydroelectric projects, renewable energy projects here in Kentucky. My company installed Kentucky's first small hydroelectric project in the late 1980s right here at the Weisenberger Mill, and since then we've done a number of other projects in Kentucky and some surrounding states.

We received a federal Department of Energy grant, to install a variable-speed generator. As far as we know, this is the first variable speed generator in a hydroelectric plant in the United States. This is a technology that was developed by the wind industry and most wind turbines use this same technology. But it’s never been tried by the hydro industry, and the Department of Energy was very interested in us trying it here, on a small-scale, small demonstration scale. And we're intending to ramp this up to much larger plants that were getting ready to build on the Kentucky River.

So we had the Weisenberger Mill, we had my company which is Shaker Landing Hydro Associates, we have Patencia Industrial, which is the company that made the new variable speed generating system that we installed. And then our other partner was Kentucky Utilities. And they were able to put in a metering system to take independent data. And that's where the Center for Applied Energy Research came in, because we wanted a particular organization that had the experience in research that could take the before and after data, process it, and come up with valid answers to the question of: Is this more efficient? How much more efficient is it? They were valid results because of the researchers over there. The credibility is what the Center for Applied Energy Research really gave this project.

The way a conventional hydro plant works, you've got a dam, and a dam backs up water and you've got two pools of water. One at a high elevation and one at low elevation, and what you're doing is you're giving a pathway for water to get from the high point to a low point and it goes through a turbine, and the turbine is able to take out anywhere between 75 and 95 percent of the power out of the water. We can change the speed of the turbine and always keep it at an optimum level. So what we're doing is we're creating variable frequency AC power, we take into the inverter, convert it into DC power, then the inverter then converts it back to 60-cycle AC power, which goes into the electric grid.

Dave (cont.): The experiment actually worked much better than we expected. We were expecting to get 10 to 15 percent more power out of it and we’re actually getting 96 percent more power out of it. One of the reasons that we found out, was that the old generator was operating at the wrong speed; it was running too fast. By slowing the generator down, we're able to get the turbine into a much more optimal efficiency range. And by doing that we're able to get the power output up significantly. Close to doubling the power output.

The Weisenberger Mill will be able to make all of the electricity that they need. We will be getting them to start using this 24 hours a day, and they should end up making two to three times more power than they can use right here in the mill. They could have never done that with the previous generator, the previous generator was just putting out a trickle of power.

But the amazing thing about this technology is, is that we're using off-the-shelf components. We're using drives that are built to be used in factories, and are being put in around the world in factories right now. So we're not having to have something special invented just for us, we can grab and fit it to what we're doing. And basically, we estimate that any hydroelectric plant that has varying differential, could add these variable frequency drives, and increase their output 10 to 15 percent.

There are 75,000 existing dams in the United States. There’s hydroelectric generators on 3 percent of them, 3 percent. And obviously, the great sites have been taken, the really big ones. What's left? What's left is a lot of smaller sites, like the Weisenberger Mill. Like the sites we're getting ready to develop on the Kentucky River. It's the smaller sites that are available, and being able to develop this technology, which will make small sites more economic, that is the key. Anything we can do to make small hydro more economic, so it can be adapted onto these existing dams that are there for other reasons. That are there for navigation, flood control, water supply, that they have to be there for another reason, you might as well use it.

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