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Hydrovolts, Inc. Fishes for New Energy in Old Canals

A placid canal can generate low-cost electricity with Hydrovolts Inc.\'s Flipwing Turbine.The Seattle-based company Hydrovolts, Inc. has discovered an economical way to tap waterways for hydroelectricity.  Rather than damming mighty rivers or installing turbines in unpredictable oceans, Hydrovolts has aimed its sights on a much smaller target: placid canals and other managed-flow water courses.  Even at low flows, a predictable and reliable current is more than enough to power the company’s unique Flipwing Turbine.  Though small in scale, the simple and relatively affordable turbine could go a long way toward meeting the electrical needs of local communities as well as farms, factories, and other facilities.

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How a Failed Tidal Power Project Gave Birth to Hydrovolts

When one door closes, another opens, and that truism sums up the circumstances under which Hydrovolts, Inc was formed.  The company was founded in 2007 by Burton Hamner, a clean tech expert who had been tapped to lead a team studying the feasibility of a 16 MW tidal power installation proposed for the Tacoma Narrows in Puget Sound.  After exhaustive state-of-the-art research the team was forced to conclude that the challenges of the site were prohibitive.  However, their studies suggested that a smaller scale, more economical alternative was at hand.

Hydrovolts and Small Scale Hydropower

Conventional hydroelectric installations generate electricity from water pressure.  In contrast, Hydrovolts’s unique Flipwing Turbine is a kinetic system that relies on ambient current.  It requires no new dams, weirs, or other site preparation.  The Flipwing Turbine units are simply placed in the water and tethered.  Hydrovolts expects to begin sales in 2010, focusing on existing canals and other constructed waterways.  Sewage treatment plants, food processors, and other facilities where water flow is regulated and consistent are other likely candidates.  With further research and testing, the use of Flipwing Turbines in natural waterways may also be in store.

Hydrovolts and Simplicity

With its emphasis on modest scale, affordability, local use, and simplicity, Hydrovolts shares an outlook with small hydropower companies like Swell Fuel, which has developed a buoy-sized wave power harvester.  Like Swell Fuel, Hydrovolts envisions a system that can be scaled up by networking small units, rather than constructing one massive installation.  Compared to ambitious ocean power project such as the ill fated Pelamis turbines, the Flipwing technology is affordable and accessible to small communities and individual sites.

Seed Money for Small Scale Hydropower

If trade recognition is any indication, Hydrovolts’s focus on the small scale is a winner.  This spring the company won a $50,000 GreenFund grant from the entrepreneur network ZINO Society and also received  Zino’s prestigious Zenith Award for Best Investment Opportunity.  Hydrovolts also qualified for this year’s semifinals in the Clean Tech Open competition for entrepreneurial innovators, and it won the “First Look Forum” of the Northwest Entrepreneur Network.  The private sector isn’t alone in boosting the trend toward small-scale, dispersed energy harvesting.  The U.S. military, for one, is highly focused on weaning itself away from vulnerable petroleum-based, centralized energy sources and conventional batteries.  DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) has a number of alternative energy projects in development and is currently soliciting grant proposals for small scale energy harvesting systems to power ocean station buoys.  When it comes to sustainable energy, good things really do come in small packages.

Image: Zadok the Priest at flickr.com.


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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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