ELK RAPIDS -- A couple of Stockhausens charged to the rescue when it came time for Antrim County officials to take stock in the Elk Lake dam.
The county turned over operation of the dam near downtown Elk Rapids this week to Elk Rapids Hydroelectric Power, a family-owned company operated by Bill Stockhausen and his son, Stock.
The family's hobby-turned-passion for operating small hydroelectric dams is a perfect fit for Antrim County, where officials wanted to keep the dam operating but didn't have the expertise to do so.
"We looked at other options ... but nobody was entertaining us with another proposal," Antrim County coordinator/planner Pete Garwood said. "I think the board thought it really made sense, when you think about the energy crunch and rising prices, to keep that dam operating as a hydroelectric facility."
Stockhausen, who lives in the Detroit suburb of Northville, is a retired engineer from Ford Motor Co. He got into the small-scale power business 25 years ago when his family restored an old mill in Bellevue, north of Battle Creek, and installed hydroelectric generation equipment there. He also does consulting work on other small dams around Michigan.
"This has kind of been my second career," he said.
County officials said the dam played a key role in the village from its earliest days. It powered the town's first saw mill and generated electricity for the community. Its construction allowed boat navigation through the Torch River and allowed the shipping of timber and agricultural goods products out of the county.
The current structure dates to the 1920s, when it was constructed as a four-turbine hydroelectric facility. It generated electric power until the 1950s, when it was decommissioned, and Consumers Power Co. turned ownership over to the county in the 1960s.
A national energy crisis in the early 1980s prompted county officials to reinstall two turbines to again start generating electricity. Traverse City Light and Power took over dam operation and maintenance, and bought the power it produced for the next 20-plus years.
But Light and Power decided to phase out its involvement in local dam operations, including the Boardman, Sabin and Brown Bridge dams south of Traverse City.
"If we're done with the three dams here, it made sense to get rid of the other one," Light and Power spokesman Jim Cooper said.
But Antrim officials want to keep the dam functioning, in part because of its electricity generation, but also because it maintains the court-ordered level of Elk Lake.
"This plant is absolutely essential for that," Stockhausen said.
The dam is licensed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission through 2013.
"Structurally, the dam is in very good condition," he said.
The dam generates about 2,400 kilowatt hours a year, enough power to operate more than 500 homes, he said.
Under the agreement, Stockhausen's company will pay the county $195,000 to retire an existing bond on the structure and take ownership of the electrical generating equipment. The county will continue to own the land and the major fixed assets. Stockhausen said the electricity generated will be sold to Consumers.
Beginning in 2013, if the structure's federal license is renewed, the county will receive 10 percent of gross receipts of power sales. The agreement also includes provisions for the county to buy power from the dam at a discount rate for facilities like the courthouse, jail and airport.
Stockhausen, whose son-in-law also will play a role in the dam's operation, said the family is excited to bring its hydroelectric know-how to northern Michigan.
"We're efficient and we're enthused, and we're in this thing to make it happen," he said.