Natel, a company at Alameda Point, is developing small-scale turbines that can harness water flow to produce electricity without a dam.
Rivers have been harnessed for the production of electricity since 1882. That’s when the world’s first hydroelectric dam was built across the Fox River in Appleton, Wisconsin. But dams are costly public works projects with negative environmental consequences, including the flooding of vast watersheds and blocking fish migration.
Natel has taken an invention from the dawn of hydropower called a Pelton Wheel and flattened it out. Natel’s Linear Pelton hydroEngine is able to capture more of the water’s energy than the original wheel design, employing a dual series of cups on a conveyor system connected to a generator shaft.
It’s not the first time someone has tried to create small-turbine hydropower without a dam, but up until now the civil engineering cost to produce a kilowatt of power along with low efficiency has limited its use. Natel is achieving design breakthroughs that will allow small-scale in-stream hydropower to become economically viable with minimal negative ecological impacts.
Since moving into a hangar on Monarch Street in 2015, the company has built a new test facility on the outside of its building. At first glance, it’s easy to mistake the large pipe loops as part of a brewing or distilling process used by neighbors along Monarch Street. The test facility is continuously cycling water through its turbine.
“Natel’s turbine technology enables lower project costs because the turbine requires little to no excavation, permitting a smaller project footprint and significantly minimizing civil works costs,” said Meghan Harwood, Government Affairs & Communications Director for Natel. “This makes the hydroEngine more flexible in its installation options, more modular, and well-suited for a distributed approach.”
In contrast to a traditional dam, which requires the water to drop hundreds of feet to power a turbine, Natel’s turbine will operate with an elevation drop of as little as 10 feet. This makes existing water diversion systems, such as irrigation canals, good candidates for adding the Natel system.
The Monroe Hydro project in Madras, Oregon, is a case study. Natel produced the power unit for a demonstration project on an irrigation canal there. The project has demonstrated commercial viability. It was one of 16 projects awarded funding by the U.S. Department of Energy and the Department of the Interior in 2011 to advance hydropower technology.
Monroe Hydro has since been sold to Apple to power a data center in Oregon. The project was featured in the 2017 HBO documentary Happening: A Clean Energy Revolution.
Along with testing its components, Natel’s test facility will soon begin testing the impact on fish. “In conventional turbines, something called cavitation occurs, which results in high pressure differentials,” said Harwood. “Cavitation and the small ‘explosion’ that occurs as a result is the leading cause of juvenile fish kills in conventional technology, which is reduced in Natel’s turbine.”
“As we build out our new test facility, we will be able to do sensor fish testing, which will involve the passing of miniature sensor fish, fish modules with sensors attached to them, through the turbine to gather additional data,” Harwood said.
Natel has applied for a patent on its hydroEngine. “No other companies to our knowledge produce a similar machine,” said Andy Baumgartner, Archivist & Graphic Designer for Natel.
In related hydroelectric news, Klamath River Renewal Corporation will begin removing four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River in 2020. The agency will restore formerly inundated lands under an agreement whose parties include the states of California and Oregon, dam owner PacificCorp and Native American tribes residing in the the Klamath Basin.
Originally published in the Alameda Sun.