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Making hydropower plants more sustainable | MIT News

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Growing up on a Texas farm, brothers Gia Schneider ’99 and Abe Schneider ’02, SM ’03 always had something to do. But every Saturday at 2:00 pm, no matter what, the family would go fishing in the local creek, build a rock dam, build a rope swing, and enjoy nature.

Eventually, the family began going to a secluded river in Colorado every summer. The river he split in two. One side was managed by ranchers who destroyed natural features like beaver dams, while the other side was left untouched.The family realized it would be better if the fishery was preserved. came to measure the health of his two river ecosystems. In high school, I co-authored a study that found that streambeds with beaver dams had more beneficial insects.

The experience taught both brothers a stuck lesson. Today, they’re working with Natel Energy, a company seeking to mimic natural river ecosystems with more sustainable hydropower systems than conventional hydropower plants. is a co-founder of

“What’s important to us, and what we’ve been doing all along, is thinking about how infrastructure can help improve the health of our environment. It’s a good example of infrastructure that doesn’t support other animal populations,” says Abe. “This is what motivates the idea that hydropower can help improve the environment instead of destroying it.”

The new fish-safe turbines and other features, designed to mimic natural river conditions, the founders say could help bridge the gap between power plant efficiency and environmental sustainability. says. By upgrading existing hydropower plants and developing new projects, the founders will strengthen the hydropower industry, the world’s largest source of renewable power, but whose energy generation has not grown as much as wind and solar in recent years. I believe we can.

“Today’s hydroelectric power plants are built with only the amount of electricity generated in mind, as opposed to the idea that if we want to unlock growth, we must address both efficiency and river sustainability. is,” says Gia.

life mission

Natel’s origins arose not from a single event, but from a lifetime of events. Abe and Gia’s father was an inventor and renewable energy enthusiast who designed and built the log cabin they grew up in. The water in their house was pumped by electricity generated using a mechanical windmill on the north side of the house.

“We grew up hanging our clothes, not because we were too poor to own a dryer, but because everything about our being and our use of energy made conscious decisions about sustainability. I was driven by the idea that I needed to bring down,” says Abe.

One of the things that fascinated both brothers was hydroelectric power. In high school, Abe recalls eavesdropping on a friend who was good at math to help him design a new hydro turbine.

Both brothers admit that coming to MIT was a huge culture shock, but they loved the atmosphere of problem-solving and entrepreneurship that permeated the campus. Gia he came to MIT in 1995 and majored in chemical engineering, and Abe three years after he followed him to MIT where he majored in mechanical engineering for both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

All the while, they never lost sight of hydropower. At the 1998 MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competitions (then $50K), they pitched the idea of ​​a hydroelectric power plant based on a linear turbine design. They were selected as finalists in the competition, but wanted more industry experience before starting the company. After graduating, Abe worked as a mechanical engineer, doing consulting work with operators of small hydroelectric power plants, and Jia worked on the energy desks of several large financial companies.

In 2009, the brothers, along with their late father Daniel, received a $200,000 small business grant to formally launch Natel Energy.

Between 2009 and 2019, the founders worked on designing a linear turbine that Abe describes as a turbine on a conveyor belt. They patented and deployed the system at several sites, but the problem of ensuring safe passage of fish remained.

The founders then did modeling suggesting that highly rounded edges on turbine blades could be used to achieve high power plant efficiencies, as opposed to the sharp blades typically used in water turbines. This insight made me realize that if you don’t need sharp blades, you probably don’t need a complicated new turbine.

“It’s very counterintuitive, but we thought that the most common type of propeller turbine could give the same result,” says Abe. “It started as a joke or a challenge. We did some modeling and quickly realized, ‘Oh my god, this could actually work!’ Instead of a powertrain with a decade’s worth of complexity, it uses the form He Factor that the entire industry is accustomed to, a powertrain that has only one moving part and loads that change very little. ”

Natel-developed turbines feature thick blades that allow over 99% of fish to safely pass through, according to third-party testing. Natel’s turbines also allow the passage of significant river sediments and can be combined with structures that mimic the natural features of rivers, such as log jams, beaver dams and rock arches.

“We want the most efficient machine possible, but we also want the most fish-safe machine possible, and that intersection leads to our own proprietary intellectual property.” says Gia.

hydro power supercharging

Natel has already installed two versions of its newest turbines at existing plants in Maine and Oregon. The company hopes to have two more by the end of this year, including one in Europe, a key market for Natel, as environmental regulations for hydropower plants tighten.

Since its installation, the founders say the first two turbines have converted more than 90% of the energy available underwater into energy with the turbines. This is an efficiency comparable to that of conventional turbines.

Going forward, Natel believes its system will play a key role in boosting the hydropower industry. The hydropower industry faces increasingly stringent scrutiny and environmental regulations that could otherwise shut down many existing power plants. For example, the founders say the total capacity of hydroelectric plants the company may retrofit across the United States and Europe is about 30 gigawatts, enough to power millions of homes. increase.

Natel also has ambitions to build entirely new power plants at many unpowered dams in the United States and Europe. (Currently, only 3% of his 80,000 dams in the US are powered.) The founders estimate their system could generate about 48 gigawatts of new power across the US and Europe. increase. This equates to over 100 million solar panels.

“We’re looking at numbers that make a lot of sense,” says Gia. “We are able to significantly add to our existing installed base while simultaneously modernizing our existing base to meet modern environmental requirements while maintaining productivity.”

Overall, the founders see hydropower as a key technology in the transition to sustainable energy, and a recent MIT study echoes that sentiment.

“Today Hydro provides the majority of power reliability services in many of these areas such as voltage regulation, frequency regulation and storage,” says Gia. “That’s the key to understanding. As we transition to a zero-carbon grid, we need a grid we can rely on, and hydropower will play a very important role in supporting that. Especially in this transition.” We want to do this as soon as possible, so we need all the zero-emission resources we can get.”