Portland Is Ingeniously Generating Hydropower From Its Waterpipes

For those that live in Portland, Oregon, your lights may now be half-powered by your drinking water.

Thanks to an ingenious new system which captures energy as water flows through the city’s pipes, hydropower (without the negative environmental effects from something like a dam) is possible.

How does it work?

Small turbines in the pipes spin in the flowing water, and send energy to the generator.

Credit: FastCoexist

Credit: FastCoexist

To invent and utilize a new source of energy with limited environmental impact is a big step in the right direction, just ask Gregg Semler, CEO of Lucid Energy, the Portland based start-up that designed the new system. “It’s pretty rate to find a new source of energy where there’s no environmental impact. But this is inside a pipe, so no fish or endangered species are impacted. That’s what’s exciting.”

For water utilities that use a massive amounts of energy, this system can make it cheaper to provide clean drinking water to the city. Utilities can either use the power themselves or sell it to to another city as a new source of revenue.

“We have a project in Riverside, California, where they’re using it to power streetlights at night,” Semler says. “During the day, when electricity prices are high, they can use it to offset some of their operating costs.”

Credit: FastCoexist

Credit: FastCoexist

One of Portland’s main pipelines now uses Lucid’s pipes to make power that is sent into the grid. Though the system cannot generate enough energy for an entire city to run off of, the pipes can power individual buildings like a school or library. The system can also help offset a city’s total energy bill. Unlike wind or solar power, the system can generate electricity at any time of the day – regardless of weather – since the pipes always have water flowing through them.

Unfortunately the pipes can’t generate power in every location, however; they only work in places where water is naturally flowing downward with the pull of gravity (if water is being pumped, the system would waste energy). But there is another feature in this system that can be used anywhere: the pipes have sensors that can monitor water, something that previous utilities have not yet done.

“We made electrical infrastructure really smart over the last 20 to 25 years, but the same hasn’t happened in water,” Semler said in an interview with FastCoexistHe pointed to the example of a pipe that burst near UCLA last year, wasting a staggering 20 million gallons of water in the middle of California’s crippling drought.

Credit: FastCoexist

Credit: FastCoexist

“They didn’t really know that the pipe burst until somebody from UCLA called,” Semler explains. “Our pipe can get indicators like pressure, a leading indicator for whether a pipe is leaking or not. So before it bursts and before we waste all the water, there are on-board information systems that water agencies can get to more precisely manage their infrastructure.”

Water quality can also be monitored in the pipes by sensors, ensuring that it is safe to drink.

It is the company’s ambition to work with cities to install new systems as old pipes wear out. They’re also hoping to expand to the developing world and implement the new and improved pipes in other areas. “It’s a great source of remote power,” stated Semler. “So in places outside the city that don’t have an electrical grid, you’re able to use the system to generate energy.”

Places like California – where 20% of total energy use goes into the water supply – are projected to receive the most benefit from implementing this system. As more cities start to install desalination plants, however, even more electricity will be required.  And of course, with the pipes, utilities can generate some of their own much-needed power.

“There’s a lot of energy in going into making sure we have safe clean drinking water,” Semler says. “Our focus is really on helping water become more sustainable.”

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