BERCshop: Natel Energy

On March 7, BERC-E hosted a BERCshop with one of the founders of Natel Energy, who explained how their small-scale hydropower technology works. Abe Schneider, President and CTO of Natel, told the story of how he and his sister started a company to make their father’s vision of generating electricity from low-head, high-flow water sources a commercial reality. Particularly interesting for me was hearing about how they decided that there was a need for hydropwer at this scale, and how they initially approached the technical problems that stood in the way of a viable product.

Most of the promising sites in the United States for traditional high-head hydropower: impounding a large river, already have dams built. Still, there is a sizable potential in small streams and rivers. This is mostly small drops: tens of feet or less, in agricultural canals in the western U.S. and at the sites of old mills in the east. Combined, these have a potential capacity approaching the total installed capacity in high-head dams, but these would come in much smaller chunks, generating kilowatts to hunreds of kilowatts. In contrast to renewables like wind and solar, these sources can provide baseload power and are very predictible days in advance.

Source: Natel Energy

Source: Natel Energy

Abe explained the importance of not overconstraining the problem one needs to solve: his most efficient turbine design came after he started from scratch with the question of how to extract the kinetic energy from flowing water rather than beginning with the set of assumptions that led him to the same turbine design each time.

Interestingly, one of Natel’s biggest technical challenges was not with the blades that directly get pushed by the water as it flows through, but with the belt that transfers this energy to the generator. This part turns through the water, degrading before eventually failing. Microscopic analysis of where the belts break, first after days, then after weeks, and eventually years, helped them identify the problems that limit the lifetime of these parts. The company put a lot of effort into building a chamber in which they can test new designs in-house, which Abe explained was worth it because now they can iterate through designs much more rapidly than when they were limited by access to a test site.

Natel is based in Alameda. They are recruiting engineers, and would welcome contact from curious people, particularly if someone is interested in an academic collaboration or internship.