RiNo landowner’s forecast calls for 50 percent chance of huge water wheel

Baltimore already has something called Mr. Trash Wheel.

An illustration of the "Denver Icon" water-wheel project proposed for the South Platte River. (Courtesy ClayDean Electric)

An illustration of the "Denver Icon" water-wheel project proposed for the South Platte River. (Courtesy ClayDean Electric)

(Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

staff photo

The River North district has bars, bike lanes and blocks of new apartments. Soon, it will have a park. So, what’s missing?

The answer could be a power-producing water wheel in the South Platte River, according to some of the biggest names in the area. Earlier this year, a board that oversees infrastructure in the north Denver district voted to spend $20,000 to research an idea dubbed “The Denver Icon.”

The proposal is to build a 50-foot wheel that would spin with the river’s flow. Its backers say it could provide renewable power to the RiNo Promenade, a mile-long park set for construction along the banks of the river. A separate, floating component would be anchored in the river to collect trash and prevent debris from entering the wheel.

“It started out, literally, on a piece of graph paper,” said Adam Feuerstein, president and managing partner of ClayDean Electric. Now, the commercial electrical contractor has fleshed out an early concept of the idea, and an engineering firm is studying its feasibility.

“I think the RiNo arts district is the perfect place to have something that’s both industrial and also produces energy from a completely renewable source,” he said.

“What I want is to make a statement that renewable energy is possible,” he said, while creating a space for gathering and community.

This is not a government project — at least not yet.

Bernard Hurley, a major landowner and board member in River North, is one of the main supporters of the idea. They also are working with The Greenway Foundation, which is the preeminent nonprofit that deals with Denver’s rivers. (A representative for TGF wasn’t immediately available for comment.)

And the project’s financial backing comes from the River North General Improvement District, a quasi-governmental organization that collects extra property taxes to pay for road projects and other infrastructure around the district.

“I would say there is a 50-50 chance this is going to happen,” Hurley said. “We haven’t heard, ‘No,’ for an answer yet.”

The proposal would put the wheel between 35th and 38th avenues, according to meeting minutes for the board. The wheel would be mounted on an arm that protrudes from the shore of the river.

A device known as a micro-grid control would autonomously adjust its height and angle to account for changing water conditions. A battery system and solar array would ensure a steady flow of power to the park.

It would be illuminated, but not by lights on the wheel itself. “The last thing we want is for it to look like a ferris wheel,” Feuerstein said.

Building anything in a river is uniquely difficult.

But similar projects have worked elsewhere. In Baltimore, solar-powered wheels named “Mr. Trash Wheel” and “Professor Trash Wheel” collected 1.5 million pounds of trash from Baltimore Harbor in about four years, according to Chesapeake Bay Magazine. The two machines have proved incredibly popular, and one advocate hopes that they’ll make the harbor swimmable by 2020.

We don’t know yet how much the RiNo concept would cost, but Hurley suggested that construction could run into the millions, if it happens. Feuerstein declined to make a guess, saying that it could vary greatly, depending on the results of the engineering study.

The project won’t consume water, which could mean that it doesn’t run afoul of some of stringent federal rules about waterways, Feuerstein said. But it could require some modifications to the river, so the planners have been in touch with the Urban Drainage and Flood Control District.

“There’s challenges with any river project,” said Dave Bennetts, manager of operations and development for the UDFCD.

“It’s an interesting idea. We don’t know enough about it to know if it’s even feasible. At some point, when it gets a little farther along, we’ll have a chance to look at it in a little more detail.”

The feasibility study could be finished in September. If it proceeds, Feuerstein hopes for construction to start in September 2019. Meanwhile, the backers may lobby for the wheel to be funded and included as part of the city’s nearby park project.