Since diving into the deep end when it comes to energy issues, almost every day sees new fascinating concepts, approaches, and technologies. Fascinating, exciting, even inspiring hope at times. And, as well, as the passion builds, so many of these are truly Energy COOL. The fifth annual DC Renewable Technology conference provided multiple opportunities for learning and excitement.

Yesterday afternoon, a session entitled “Small Hydro Projects Present Big Opportunity” had me leaning forward with interest.  Around the planet, micro and small hydropower represents a significant opportunity space toward clean energy production development masked by large hydropower projects. (Another reason to damn those dams?) While Molly Hill Patten’s articulate discussion of the challenges and triumphs toward making the Bowerstock Mills & Power Company’s small hydropower project a reality fascinated me and merits future discussion, two presentations truly represented Energy COOL opportunities in the small / micro hydro world that create value streams from water that is currently flowing unexploited:

  • Natel Energy opens the door to generating electricity from small gravity drops, from 5 to 20 feet.
  • Lucid Energy has targeted generating electricity leveraging waste energy within municipal water pipes.

These two firms, alone, offer paths for a 10-20 percent increase in hydropower production and conceivably open the door for doubling hydropower production in the United States.

Hydropower currently represents about nine percent of US electricity production.

Natel and Lucid, combined, could enable shutting down a hundred coal-fired power plants across the United States … and many times this number more around the world.

Natel Energy

Natel’s vision is to enable efficient, cost-effective use of water to produce new, renewable energy while maintaining conditions that sustain or improve water resources for ecosystems, for human consumption, and for agriculture.

Founded by a group of MIT graduates, Natel has developed a system for generating electricity from water flows outside the mainstream of hydropower production:  relatively low vertical drops that, in existing waterways and dams without power generation, represent about 7-10 gigawatts of capacity in the United States alone.

On the right is the hydroEngineTM, which Natel claims cuts installation costs by a third to one half compared to existing systems in this space with, roughly, a comparable reduction in the cost of electricity.

And, consider this space. California uses roughly 20 percent of its total electricity to treat and move water.  And, that is generally far from cheap electricity.  Natel’s system offers the potential for generating electricity along, for example, irrigation canals that could offset the overall water system’s electricity demands. Roughly, 250 megawatts of potential or a good share (1/3rd to 1/2d) of a coal power plant.

Natel path seems to both avoid and fall into the trap for small hydropower projects. Hydropower developers (with some reason) will complain that it is harder to get regulatory approval for hydropower projects than to move a nuclear power plant through the approval process.  Issues from fish kills, to river disruption, to … create a range of serious issues that put many significant steps into the approval process. (In some cases, this entire process is truly counter-productive on a multitude of grounds … however, this isn’t the case universally. A highly complicated arena beyond the expertise/focus of this writer … See FERC hydropower page, to start … note that recent legal changes address some of this including creating eased paths for small (less than 5 megawatt capacity) hydropower systems.)  By enabling electricity production in man-made water channels (like those California irrigation canals), Natel avoids the regulatory (environmental, ….) issues associated with traditional hydropower projects. 

The application of Natel to another potentially fruitful arena, the 97% (or so) of American dams without electricity production, does fall within the regulatory process — but into the <5 mw range and also opens up opportunities at many dam/sluice locations where traditional hydropower would not be appropriate. (Sidenote: another panelist, Nancy Skancke, commented that introducing hydropower at many of these dam locations would open the door for environmental remediation at sites that currently fall outside the regulatory environment …. interesting angle to consider.  Some (relatively) clean electricity production along with local environmental remediation with concurrent job creation seems worth exploring …)
Note: Interesting discussion of Natel’s vision and approach (pdf) and a video showing the basic principles.

Lucid Energy pushes the line on “hydropower” in a direction that few have seen as part of the clean energy portfolio.  Think of gurgling pipes … Lucid has developed and commercialized a cost-effective path for turning the power of gurgling into electricity. Well, at least for ‘big’ pipes (about 2-8 feet in diameter) that one will find in municipal water systems, major industrial facilities using significant amounts of water, agricultural irrigation districts, …).

In-conduit hydropower leverages the power of water flowing downhill within pipe systems to produce baseload clean electricity.  The Lucid system can be quickly installed literally beneath our feet. In many piping systems, there is excess power and actual problems from the water moving too fast. Thus, well-designed in-conduit systems can  – in some applications — create a negative cost (savings) at acquisition because water distribution pipes are often built with additional pipe line to have angles to reduce the water speed. The Lucid system’s scavenging of power from the water flow could achieve the same result and thus require less digging and fewer feet (miles) of pipe in a water distribution system.  And, the Lucid system can work in conjunction with pressure reducing valves in a way that will extend the valves’ meantime between failures and thus reducing operating costs and improve water distribution reliability.

Lucid’s pipes replace sections of traditional piping. The pipe compresses the water (reducing the diameter), which increases the speed and pressure as it then passes through a lift-based turbine (see to the right).  And, these can be put in a series along a pipeline to the extent that excess water pressure allows.

Lucid’s potential market and impact on America’s electricity system appears huge.  Just consider New York City, where there are high electricity prices, a priority to move to cleaner energy, and some 85 percent of the water is delivered with gravity. Moving beyond this, Lucid could provide an effective path for increasing the cost-effectiveness of pumped hydro storage — especially small scale pumped hydro storage. Lucid’s CEO briefed this as having a levelized cost of energy between 4 and 9 cents per kilowatt hour, a price that makes it more than competitive with any other new power system out there.  When we add in the values for it being a distributed, baseload, clean energy system that will have other positive externalities (like reducing maintenance on valves and increasing water system reliability), the payoff opportunity seems huge.

Water and energy … Across the United States, roughly eight percent of generated electricity is dedicated to the movement and cleaning of water. In California, the figure is more like 20 percent. Lucid and Natel offer paths to leverage existing water movements to provide clean electricity that potentially could offset a significant portion of that energy demand.