Water Turbine Turns Canals Into Clean Energy

Hydrovolts is a Seattle, Washington-based startup with an innovative micro-hydro turbine technology. Instead of relying on natural water resources, the Hydrovolts turbine is designed specifically for use in man-made waterways, such as irrigation canals, water diversion channels, discharge channels for wastewater, cooling water discharges from thermal power plants and large hydropower projects.

The company was a global finalist in the 2009 CleanTech Open, and winner of that year’s National Sustainability Award. It also won the CleanTech Open Sustainability Award for the Northwest Region in 2010. This year, Hydrovolts was recognized as a Global Innovator by launch.org, a business mentoring program sponsored by NASA, USAID, the U.S. Department of State and Nike. The company also won the ImagineH2O Water-Energy Nexus Business Plan Competition.

Hydrovolts Class 3

image via Hydrovolts

EarthTechling recently sat down with Hydrovolts Founder and CEO Burt Hamner at Hydrovolts’ office in the McKinstry Innovation Center in Seattle’s SODO district.

Hamner first got the idea for Hydrovolts while working on a feasibility study for a proposed tidal power plant in the Tacoma Narrows region of Puget Sound in 2007. Ultimately, the report concluded that a commercial tidal power plant was not technically or economically feasible. But the study did inspire Hamner to explore the possibility of generating power in smaller, artificial water channels. Unlike Puget Sound, “these canals generally have steady, predictable currents, contain little or no debris, have no endangered species, and are easily accessible by road,” he said. “They are also typically maintained by large engineering organizations that know how to handle machinery.”

Hydrovolts was born from Hamner’s desire to develop a “plug and play,” drop-in micro-hydro turbine that requires no concrete or construction, and utilizes commercial off-the-shelf components. The turbine features a “flipwing” rotor, which uses hinged blades to rotate the center turbine shaft. As the blades begin their reverse upstream stroke, they flip open backwards to eliminate resistance (see video below).

The company offers three different blade designs, which can be switched out to accommodate different current levels and applications. The turbine itself also comes in three different sizes, capable of producing 100w to 16kW, depending on water velocity. The smallest model is about the size of a two-drawer filing cabinet, and can be installed by two people in less than an hour. The largest model fits inside of a standard shipping container.

The simplicity of Hydrovolts’ technology has been central to its initial success, Hamner said. “We have the benefit of having a technology that is simple for everybody to understand. It’s obvious that it works–you can see it spin. If it works in one water canal, it will work in all of them.”

Lauren Craig is a writer and consultant living in Seattle, WA. She holds an M.S. in International Development from Tulane University, and is co-founder of Sustainable Systems Integrators, LLC., an employee-owned solar energy design and installation firm in New Orleans, LA. She is also certified in PV design and installation by the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP).