Hydrovolts believes its technology can turn the increasingly precious water flowing in ever-larger volumes through wastewater treatment plants into electricity. There are, according to Hydrovolts CEO Burt Hamner, over 26,000 municipal wastewater treatment plants in the United States and over 100,000 industrial treatment plants. The obvious opportunity raised a question for his emerging company.
The Hydrovolts team took a small turbine similar to those the company has used to capture energy flowing through irrigation canals to a wastewater treatment plant in Port Orchard, Washington. “We wanted to see how fast we could get it installed,” he said. They did it in a day. “And it worked. And then we said, ‘Wow, we could do this with a bigger machine.’ And then, all of a sudden, we discovered a lot more places to do this.”
Ready installation is the key, Hamner said. “Because it installs so quickly without needing site modifications,” he explained, “it is inexpensive. It doesn’t have to make lots of power to pay for itself. That’s the breakthrough.”
The turbine they installed in the wastewater stream only produces “around 350 watts.” The company had it running through the recent holidays “with a data transmitter and powering a Christmas tree. It’s the world’s first pee-powered Christmas tree.”
Hydrovolts has completed one round of financing and is about to complete a $5-million-plus second round, Hamner said. “We’ve sold three canal turbines and one waterfall turbine.”
Hydrovolts, he said, has built and tested three turbines of three different sizes. “The Portable turbine is expected to retail for under $2,000. The Canal turbine has two sizes, from 2 to 10 kilowatts output, depending on water speed, for approximately $20,000 and $40,000, [respectively]. The Waterfall turbine is in development and will likely have two sizes and a modular design. Price remains to be determined.”
Hamner has been working in tidal power since 2005 and with what he calls “micro-hydropower” since 2007, but it “has never been cost-effective if you have to pour concrete or do civil engineering. You just can’t make enough power to pay it off,” he explained. “But if you eliminate the need to modify a site, and you can do the installation in a day, and you have new technologies like grid-tied microinverters that didn’t exist 20 years ago, you can now do this -- and we are.”
Hydrovolts used the multiple-Oscar-winning Autodesk design software to develop a larger turbine for the Port Orchard site.
“We expect it will make 2 to 2.5 kilowatts of power. And this is a small water plant,” Hamner said. “The plant’s flow is only 1.5 million gallons a day from a population of around 10,000 people. That’s the smallest turbine we think it’s reasonable to make, because you have to make a certain amount of power for it to be economic.”
Wastewater treatment plants for large cities in the U.S. and around the world will require bigger turbines. “We are just starting to understand the possibilities, Hamner said. “We are quoting plants that have flows of 25 million to 40 million gallons a day. Bigger cities have bigger plants. A whole river runs through a bigger city’s plant.” Such plants, Hamner said, require “more and bigger turbines.”
There is a limit. “The maximum we think you can get with this technology from any one facility,” Hamner said, “is maybe 40 to 50 kilowatts with a number of modular machines.” But that is because of the way wastewater is presently managed, he added.
“We expect the world’s water engineering community is going to get very excited about this new paradigm in water engineering,” Hamner said. “Now you need to engineer the water flow to take advantage of it.” An example is overflows where the stream is wide and thin, he explained. “They could be made narrow so the water is more focused and the energy could then be captured better.”
The Autodesk design software, Hamner said, was essential to helping potential customers “instantly understand what this thing is going to look like and how it will fit into their system.” The Autodesk record keeping system has been “critical for intellectual property protection because it documents everything,” he added. And in Hydrovolts’ newest design, Hamner said, Autodesk’s materials software minimized “the environmental impacts of materials choices. That’s very important to us because we’re committed to sustainability, not just in the product we make but in the way we make the product.”
Hydrovolts has won multiple awards for greentech innovation from organizations like Launch and ImagineH2O and has, Hamner said, reached out to other partners. “We’ve signed a letter of intent to do a turbine project with the Butte Irrigation District in California. We have become a member of the Fresno Water-Energy Technology Center. We are negotiating sales and demonstrations with two other water organizations in California. And we are in sales and technology partnerships with organizations in Massachusetts.”
Hamner said Hydrovolts’ newest breakthrough opens up “a new renewable energy sector” -- and he foresees “micro-hydropower bubbling up all over.”