Portland Smart Water Pipe Infrastructure Also Distributes Electricity

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A new section of a very smart water pipe infrastructure is now operational in Portland, Oregon. It not only delivers water, it provides hydropower electricity en route.

According to Next City, this clean energy infrastructure innovation has promise for a larger role in the future:

 A new system, unveiled in January, generates electricity inside a stretch of city pipeline. Right now its footprint is small, running under an eastern quadrant of the city, but it will produce around 1,000 megawatt hours every year — enough to power 150 homes. Only the second of its kind (Riverside, California, installed a smaller version in 2012), the infrastructure comes from a partnership between the Portland Water Bureau and local startup Lucid Energy.

Conceptually, the notion of capturing available energy from the force provided by moving water is sublimely simple. Take hydropower as an example, where cascading water generates enough force to turn a turbine. On large hydroelectric dams, water released from a dam has enough force to move huge turbines, which in turn generate electricity to feed the grid.

But as writer Rachel Dovey has pointed out, while hydropower tops the list of widely adopted renewables, “it’s difficult to harness on a city scale. ” First of all, closely situated hydroelectric dams don’t exist for most cities. “Though free-flow and tidal projects exist, they don’t necessarily mesh with a dense municipal grid.”

Here is where Portland’s new pipe system tops the list for innovative solutions.  Greg Semler, from Lucid Energy, provided a simple analysis of an urban water system, saying many gravity-fed water delivery systems pump water uphill into reservoirs and then send it rushing downhill to water users, controlling the deluge with a series of valves.

In Portland, placement of a turbine was altered. “We put a turbine in front of that water, the turbine spins a generator and that converts flowing water to electricity,” said Semler, CEO of Lucid Energy, a provider of renewable energy and smart water management solutions that improve the economics of delivering water.

Water rates are not expected to increase, a Portland Water Bureau spokesperson has said. In fact, the project is expected to generate $2 million worth of electricity over the next 20 years, which will then be sold to Portland General Electric, the system investor, and the Water Bureau will share the returns. After 20 years, the Portland Water Bureau will have the option of owning the system and the energy it produces.

While the idea behind this enterprise is very attractive, not all American cities can rush into the business of producing energy through water pipes because their pipe infrastructure often date back to the turn of the previous century. It is certain, though, that old infrastructures like these will have to be updated sooner rather than further down the road.

Photo Credit: A Portland, Oregon, reservoir via AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

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Glenn Meyers

is a writer, producer, and director. Meyers was editor and site director of Green Building Elements, a contributing writer for CleanTechnica, and is founder of Green Streets MediaTrain, a communications connection and eLearning hub. As an independent producer, he's been involved in the development, production and distribution of television and distance learning programs for both the education industry and corporate sector. He also is an avid gardener and loves sustainable innovation.

Glenn Meyers has 449 posts and counting. See all posts by Glenn Meyers

5 thoughts on “Portland Smart Water Pipe Infrastructure Also Distributes Electricity

  • They have to move that water anyway. This is just taking advantage of the downhill run to generate electricity while it heads to peoples homes.

    • That’s true if the water only has to go downward from the turbine on, i.e. if the line is a dead end (not very common at all). If there is an upward stretch further down the road, all you would do is raise the increased pumping force over the whole trajectory by more than the power recovered.

      So while this idea can work, placement is highly constrained by local topography. Only a handful of locations in a limited number of cities are suitable, which makes me wonder if this idea can ever reach the economy of scale required.

  • Portland’s water, like many cities, is gravity fed, coming from mountain reservoirs. The pressure needs to be reduced so it doesn’t blow the taps off your sink. If you look at Lucid Energy’s website, the system only removes about 5psi per turbine. When upstream of a pressure reducing valve (which burns off all the pressure anyway) this converts about 20psi into electricity.

    But even if you did pump water up to a reservoir, how is it a bad thing to recoup some of that energy as it flows back down? Helps pay for pumping costs at least.

    • I wonder how many other places such a system could be used?
      Any bit of RE power helps the world/planet! 🙂

    • This is why this system will be successful.

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