by Kip Hanson
Quebec manufacturer turns the power of running water into clean, dependable energy
Those concerned with global warming and greenhouse gasses embrace a vision in which fields of solar panels and forests of windmills supply our world’s energy needs.
These are certainly sources of clean, renewable energy, but they’re not without high cost in terms of infrastructure and land use. Imad Hamad, CEO of RER Hydro Ltd. in Quebec has a better vision, one where power is generated by unobtrusive and environmentally friendly devices that are simple to install, easy to operate, and reliable. “We can drop one of our machines into the middle of a river, connect it to the grid, and the power is in your toaster.”
RER Hydro, or Renewable Energy Research, has developed the TREK (Kinetic Energy Recovery Turbine), a first-generation, hydrokinetic turbine that harvests the power of river currents without the need for a dam or other structures that would otherwise impede the river’s natural flow and habitat. Picture a tube 3.0 meters in diameter and twice that long, inside of which sits a series of fan blades – you can think of it as a monstrous jet engine, but the similarity ends there. This turbine makes no noise, and uses no fuel.
The TREK can be placed on the bed of nearly any river, provided it carries a minimum depth of 5.5 m and water velocity at least 1.5 m/sec. This is sufficient to spin the turbine blades at a nominal rate of 90 rpm and generate up to 340 kW of emission-free power. “Compare that to coal-burning plants,” Hamad says. “These produce 1,024 kilotons of carbon dioxide per terawatt/hour of electricity. Diesel produces 787 kilotons, and natural gas 422. The total CO2 footprint of my machine, including manufacturing and transportation, is 12 kilotons. Which would you prefer?”
Better yet, this power comes at a cost that leaves many utility companies scrambling for an extension cord. Tidal power generation, for instance, has been used successfully for decades, but it hasn’t proved to be terribly efficient. “The tidal power developed by France during the sixties, for example, blocks the water every six hours, creating a temporary reservoir which is then discharged into a series of turbines. This leads to problems for aquatic life and gradual buildup of silt. It’s environmentally unacceptable,” Hamad explains. The tidal turbine systems deployed over the past ten years in the U.K. and Norway are better in this respect, as they are essentially underwater windmills measuring upwards of fifteen meters in diameter, and do not disrupt the water flow and fish activity, as does the old technology. However, these systems still present significant engineering challenges. “You need huge machines and barges to place these devices dozens of kilometers from shore, and massive undersea cables to transmit the power to where it’s needed. It’s not economically viable.”
If you’re a fan of nuclear power, you might cite in-production costs of a few cents per kilowatt/hour, far lower than most competing technologies. Hamad says that’s only part of the story. “You have to look at the levelized cost of nuclear energy, LCEO, which takes into account everything needed to get power to the grid: initial capital investment (CAPEX), maintenance, financing, and fuel rod disposal costs. Consider a recent proposal made by a large engineering firm in Canada – 22 billion dollars for a 1000 megawatt plant, and 10-20 years to build. That’s easily twice the investment required for equivalent power generation using TREK technology. And what about the waste products – will we transfer the burden of radioactive material to our children? If you include all these things in the equation, only then can you compare apples to apples the cost of nuclear power.”
Still want a windmill? Think again. Hamad claims to have the highest capacity factor (percentage of generating capacity/time) and the lowest cost per kilowatt-hour compared to all other renewable energy options. “Solar fields and windmills take up a lot of space. They can be destroyed by tornadoes, hurricanes, and ice storms, while our machine sits safely under the water.” There is one viable competitor to river-generated power, admits Hamad: the hydroelectric dam. “With conventional hydro, you are capturing the pressure of water over 100 m high. Compared to this, there’s no way you can produce as much power from a hydrokinetic free-flowing technology such as the TREK. We understand this. But once again, you must consider the environment.”
Hamad is right. Too often, we humans build infrastructures to serve our own purposes with no consideration for those who share this planet; what do the fish think about all this? Compared to a stationary dam, the TREK with its spinning blades probably looks like a giant Cuisinart. Appearances can be deceiving. Hamad explains that, while hydroelectric dams offer recreational activities and relatively cheap electric power, they are deadly to fish. “If you’re familiar with scuba-diving, you’ll understand. When the fish cross from the high pressure zone inside the turbine to the area immediately downstream, they suffer an instantaneous pressure drop. In simplest terms, they burst.” This phenomenon does not exist inside the TREK, says Hamad. “Together with input from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Wildlife Quebec, Fisheries and Ocean Canada, and several independent parties, we have developed a technology that has no negative impact on fish, and no need to create a lake.”
The fish aren’t the only ones excited over all this. The company has an official mandate to “pursue the development and manufacture of water turbines,” and has purchased a large manufacturing facility, anticipating substantial growth. Even US manufacturer Boeing is taking notice. Says Hamad, “we have achieved world records of reliability and performance, with zero failures. As a result, Boeing has a mandate to deploy our machines around the world, and will be building hydrokinetic farms using our technology. This enables financing and basically guarantees success. It’s a hat trick on a global basis.” SMT
Kip Hanson is a contributing editor. [email protected]