Hydrovolts Hopes to Flip Open Door to Hydropower with Novel Underwater Turbine
Burt Hamner, founder and CEO of the tiny Seattle startup Hydrovolts, has an idea he hopes will revolutionize the hydropower industry.
His invention, the “flip wing” turbine, is still in development. It is a simple and cheap spin on the paddle wheel, but comes with a twist that boosts its power production. The turbine is designed to sit in flowing waterways, such as rivers or canals. The flowing water pushes each blade from the front of the turbine to the back, but unlike a traditional paddle wheel design, the “paddles” on Hamner’s turbine flip open on their way back around, reducing drag and increasing power-harnessing ability.
I met Hamner at Williamson & Associates, a marine engineering company in Ballard that is helping Hamner with all the engineering for his turbines. The Ballard shop contained several giant pieces of marine equipment under construction, including a massive drill designed to test for methane 12,000 feet under the sea. “These guys can make anything work underwater,” Hamner says.
In contrast, Hydrovolt’s prototype turbine is about three feet long and sits against the wall in a conference room. It was built with motors scavenged from a washing machine. Hamner cranks it by hand, and a light bulb attached to the end lights up.
Washington state produces the most hydroelectric power in the nation, and the Columbia River’s Grand Coulee Dam is the largest hydropower plant, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. But water-generated power on such a scale requires massive amounts of construction and maintenance, Hamner says, and you can’t just go building a dam wherever you feel like it (not to mention the environmental impact).
Hydrovolts’ technology is a little simpler. While the prototype turbine is a few feet long, the working turbines will be about the size of a refrigerator, Hamner says. “It’s a very simple thing,” he said. “I can deliver this in a pickup, and have it in the water and producing power in 30 minutes.”
The fridge-sized turbines will cost $13,000 and will produce on average two to three kilowatts per day, or as much as 20 kilowatts per day, depending on where they are installed, Hamner says. That’s enough to power a few houses. At the average national electricity price of 10 cents per kilowatt-hour, the turbines will pay for themselves in less than three years if running continuously, a very fast payback rate for renewable energy, Hamner says.
It’s early days for Hydrovolts yet. The company, which has just three employees but a big network of connections to Seattle-area water experts, was formed in November 2007 when Hamner was fresh from a turbine project for the city of Tacoma, WA. The city put out a request for proposals in 2006 to turn the Tacoma Narrows waterway into a hydropower producer. Hamner, who has a long and varied background in marine work, amassed a group of experts from local companies and the University of Washington, and wrote the winning proposal for the project.
Although the project turned out not to be economically feasible, Hamner became very intrigued by the idea of using turbines for hydropower, and Hydrovolts was born. Hamner bought a turbine to study it “instead of remodeling my house,” he says, and started sketching ideas when the idea occurred to him to put hinges on the turbine blades to prevent drag.
The company has recently been recognized in the Seattle startup world, winning “best investment opportunity” at the Zino Society Green Investment Forum in April, and grand prize at the Northwest Entrepreneur Network’s First Look Forum in March.
Hamner says his turbines can be used in many places that are not currently capable of producing energy, such as rural or resource-poor areas, but his first aim is to target privately owned, man-made waterways such as irrigation canals or industrial spillways. These have two big advantages, Hamner says. First, being man-made, they are already staffed with engineers who understand their water flow very well and will be able to easily install and maintain the turbines themselves. And second, this application minimizes potential environmental impacts.
Of course, Hamner recognizes that hydropower comes with this particular sticking point for businesses. So there are various environmental tests that still need to be done, even for the industrial and man-made waterways that Hydrovolts will be targeting. One question is whether fish can easily get around the turbines. “There are real environmental issues when you put things in waterways,” he said. “Waterways are like blood supplies. People really care about them.”