Power in the pipes

By Matt Chapuran from IAPMO

In the spirit of the sharing of unique experiences that shape the plumbing industries in our respective nations, the following article looks at an energy company that has placed turbines inside water pipes with the goal of producing cheap and clean electricity.

If everything old is new again, it shouldn’t be surprising for water power to stage a comeback. After all, the textile mills that stood at the heart of the American Industrial Revolution were fed by water power. Today, Lucid Energy in Portland, Oregon, has been piloting a new technology — graceful in its simplicity — that promises a new source for clean renewable energy, and one that literally taps into an existing infrastructure that criss-crosses every major American municipality.

Lucid Energy’s technology places turbines inside existing municipal water pipes. The turbines can be fitted for pipes ranging from 24 to 96 inches (about 60–244cm). Water flowing downwards through the pipes turns the turbines, generating cheap and clean electricity. The system relies upon gravity rather than forced water current to activate the turbines, which operate without interrupting or disrupting the water flow and without impacting water quality. The turbines have been NSF 61 certified for use in potable water systems or clean effluent for municipal, agricultural, or industrial applications. By using kinetic energy latent to existing infrastructure, the system generates no waste or unintended negative environmental impacts. Sensors embedded into the turbines enable quick detection of water leaks.

Perhaps the most public example of the new technology in action — even if its underground presence means that it isn’t literally visible — is in Portland, where the Portland Water Bureau has installed four 42-inch (about 107cm) turbines. After months of testing the system’s durability and its smart technology sensors, the project was declared fully operational and began returning energy to the Portland municipal grid in January 2015. Lucid Energy and the Portland Water Bureau estimate that the installation will generate 1.1GWh per year, or 1 100MWh, enough to power 150 homes. According to a spokesperson for the Portland Water Bureau, “The Water Bureau’s involvement in this project was possible because of fortuitous timing. Lucid approached the city as the Water Bureau was already planning work for the Powell Butte Reservoir. The Lucid project, which required access to our pipe system and vault, coincided with work we already had planned for the Powell Butte project.”

Located in Portland’s Sabin HydroPark, the LucidPipe installation seems a natural outgrowth of a Portland city effort to better integrate local utilities into daily life. Sabin is one of more than a half dozen of Portland’s HydroParks, including Haisley HydroPark, which conceals an underground water reservoir tank, and Hazelwood HydroPark, which includes, according to the Portland Water Bureau, a “water conservation demonstration garden [which] showcases water efficient landscaping”.

The shared concept of the HydroParks is to turn previously restricted water facilities into community gathering spaces, with other ‘green’ features such as recycled park benches and picnic tables. The strategy is intended to incorporate civic use with municipal assets, encouraging local residents to have a greater investment in local utilities and provide neighbourhood-watch style security for the sites. A recent Portland Monthly article highlighted Sabin as a neighbourhood on the rise, stating that, “in 2008, a pair of aging hilltop water towers was transformed from a proverbial sow’s ear into a silk purse, complete with swing sets and slides.”

Government funding has stimulated Lucid Energy’s work. The Department of Energy provided Lucid Energy with more than USD1-million in SBIR grant funding to develop and field test the technology. The first pilot, a single-turbine system, was installed at Riverside Public Utilities in Riverside, California. According to a spokesperson for the Portland Water Bureau, the costs of the Portland installation were funded entirely through private investment. Lucid Energy has secured private funding from a very active syndicate of investors, including Northwest Pipe, OurCrowd, Star Energy, and the Harbourton Fund. The electricity is sold to the local electrical utility, PGE, and the Portland Water Bureau shares in the revenue with the investor. The Portland project was the first in the United States to secure a Power Purchase Agreement with a local electrical utility to supply energy from in-pipe hydropower in a municipal water pipeline. Lucid Energy pays the Portland Water Bureau a rental fee based on the amount of electricity generated. It is estimated that the project can provide as much as USD2-million worth of electricity over its first 20 years and has a projected usable life of up to 50 years.

What remains to be seen is whether the combination of fortuitous timing, private investment, and public capital are necessary ingredients for LucidPipe technology to scale up and proliferate to other projects. The Portland Water Bureau suggests that circumstances were unique. “The project required access to our pipes at a location that allows the installation of the supporting vault structures. These structures encumber significant right-of-way, and are non-typical of current existing water facility structures. The Water Bureau does not expect to be able to replicate the circumstances that allowed for this partnership.”

However, Bill Kelly, chief operating officer for Lucid Energy, is more optimistic of the technology’s future. “We learned a tremendous amount from the Portland LucidPipe installation and we’re grateful for the Portland Water Bureau for allowing us to work with them,” Kelly said. “The neat thing is the LucidPipe system is consistently generating the energy we predicted. And now, as a company, we are focused on developing the next generation turbine design with the goal of reducing equipment costs by a factor of two. This will enhance the product’s suitability for a broader range of pipeline applications.”

“The neat thing is the Lucid pipe system is consistently generating the energy we predicted.”


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