Roy Davis, of Eaton Rapids, is the new owner of the historic Smithville Dam in Hamlin Township, just outside of Eaton Rapids.
“I’m just a blue-collar mechanic that fixes things,” Davis said. “If it deals with hydroelectric, I can do it.” He has done this kind of work since he was 16, he said. Davis is active in renewable energy and is also the managing partner for Green Wheels Dominicana, a project which turns garbage dumps into fuel sources in the Dominican Republic.
Smithville is not his first experience with saving old dams. His efforts at restoring the dam in Hubbardston, Michigan, which was offline and needed to be brought back up to code, proved to be a success. It’s been back in operation since 2016, producing power every day, thanks to his efforts.
The Smithville Dam, originally built in 1850 by the Perrine brothers as a sawmill, is 167 feet long and 14 feet tall, and is located two miles upstream from Eaton Rapids. In 1935, George Miller of the Miller Dairy Farms purchased the dam and built a powerplant there to produce electricity with which to operate his ice cream factory, eventually expanding the service to neighboring farms and parts of the city of Eaton Rapids.
Smithville, along with the State Street dam, are dams that the Michigan Department of Natural Resources believes eventually should be removed. It has been a controversial topic in the area and debated since the 1970s.
Davis purchased Smithville dam from the late Scott Goodwin of the Grand River Power Company. Smithville had been out of compliance with its federal license to generate power since 2009 and had been ordered to cease generating power.
“I bought it as-is, with its power agreement and with all its problems,” Davis said.
Davis has invested time and money into the aging dam, and currently has it in operation and in compliance with the federal guidelines. The next step is to be able to sell the electricity that is being produced, he explained. Davis is required to control the water flow from the dam, in conjunction with rules from the State of Michigan requiring that certain depths be maintained.
“The downtown would flood if we weren’t there,” Davis explained. “The mill pond would drain to nothing.”
The Eaton Rapids City Council initially turned down the option of buying electricity from Davis due to the price, Eaton Rapids City Manager Aaron Desentz explained. A legal requirement was discovered, however, that federal regulation requires the city to purchase the electricity created at Smithville. Currently, the city is in negotiations with Davis to determine the cost per kilowatt-hour that the city will pay for the electricity generated at Smithville.
“Overall, the City is looking out for the economic interests of our rate-paying customers for now and in the future,” DeSentz said. “And there is still plenty of room to resolve the issue.”
“We currently have one of the lowest rates for electricity in the state,” Desentz explained. “We don’t want to see that go up.”
The city purchases most of its electrical power through the Michigan Public Power Agency (MPPA), as part of a co-operative, along with 22 other cities that own their own electric utility, including Lansing, Holland, Paw Paw, Chelsea, and more. With a cooperative arrangement, the group works together to get a better price for their electricity.
Michigan has set a standard that 15 percent of our power should come from renewable sources starting in 2021. “We are well within compliance with all federal and state requirements,” Desentz pointed out.