Pros And Cons Of Mini-Hydro Power Plants In Irrigation Canals

While the first time that moving water allowed to produce electricity occurred more than a century ago, in 1882, on the Fox River in Wisconsin, hydropower has always had a significant role in the expansion of the electricity among the world population. After all, hydropower remains as one of the most valuable renewable energy resources, and they represent a non-polluting, a non-radioactive, and a nonconsumptive use of water resources.

A major discussion that we have been watching in the last couple of decades relates to the size that hydropower dams should have. The truth is that even though hydropower has a lot of benefits, it also has some drawbacks, especially in what concerns with the environmental effects and social displacements that it can cause. So, more and more researchers are looking for ways to produce hydro power without affecting the environment.

One of the thing that is being discussed is the use of micro-hydro power plants in irrigation canals.

So, what are mini-hydro power plants?

Simply put, a mini-hydro power plant is one of the many kinds of hydroelectric power that are usually able to produce up to 100 kW of electricity, only using the natural flow of the water.

When there is a small community or just an isolated home, a mini-hydro power plant can be the perfect solution to provide electricity to people. This is just what happens in Japan, with the Momura mini-hydro power plant.

Just like hydro power dams have advantages and disadvantages, and these can vary depending on you’re considering big or smaller dams, mini-hydro power plants also have their pros and cons.

Mini-Hydro Power Plants In Irrigation Canals Pros:

1: Efficient

There’s no question about the efficiency of this energy source, After all, it will only take a small amount of water flow to generate electricity with a micro-hydro. Plus, this power can easily be delivered up to a mile away to the location where it is needed.

2: Reliability

When you compare the hydro energy with other renewable energies, it won’t be hard to notice that hydro is one of the few that produces a continuous supply of electrical power. Plus, one of the main advantages regarding the hydro power is the fact that it is more needed during the winter months and this is when exactly large quantities of electricity produced.

3: No Reservoir

One of the main problems that have been pointed out by researchers when considering the environmental effects of larger dams is the release of chemicals from the water reservoir. However, this won’t occur when using a mini-hydro power plant in irrigation canals.

The mini-hydro is mainly seen as a function that stands in the middle of the river. The water will only pass through the generator, but it will be directed back into the stream. This guarantees that the impact on the surrounding ecology will be minimum.

4: Cost Effective

The reality is that the difference between the expenses of building a larger dam and a smaller dam is already huge. However, when you consider the costs of building a mini-hydro power plant in irrigation canals, this is, by far, the most affordable solution.

Depending on the location as well as on site electricity requirements, a small mini-hydro power plant can cost between $2,000 and $30,000. This would already be a huge decrease in the expenses. However, the maintenance fees will also be a lot smaller than the maintenance costs of dams, either big or small, as well as than other technologies.

5: Great Help For Developing Countries

Developing countries don’t have the same budgets as developed countries. However, they do have the same small villages and communities that they need to make sure have electricity. So, with fewer costs, the mini-hydro power plants for irrigation canals can be a great option.

6: Integration With The Local Power Grid

One of the main advantages, when you decide to invest in a mini-hydro power plant for canals, is the fact that, most probably, it will produce too much energy. So, you can get power companies to buy back your energy overflow.

Mini-Hydro Power Plants In Irrigation Canals Cons:

1: Requires Specific Site Characteristics

To take full advantage of the mini-hydro power plant in irrigation canals, you need to make sure that you have the right site. Some of the factors that you will need to take into account include the stream size (including the drop, output, and flow rate), the distance between the mini-hydro and the location of the canals, and the balance of the system components, pipelines, transmission lines, controllers, batteries, and inverter.

2: Expansion Is Not Possible

When you can find the perfect site for having a mini-hydro power, the truth is that, in most occasions, the flow and size of the streams will not allow the possibility of expanding it in the case more electricity is needed.

3: Summer Months May Be A Concern

In many locations, the stream size varies depending on the season. Usually, summer months tend to present less water flow which results in less energy produced. This is why it is important to know if all the energy requirements are going to be met during the entire year during the planning and research stages.

Summing all up, there’s no question that mini-hydro power plants can be extremely helpful in irrigation canals. Besides the fact that this is a great source of clean energy, it is both reliable and efficient. The truth is that the problems that can come up with the construction of mini-power plants can all be avoided if there are a good planning and research. The environmental impacts will be inexistent which makes it one of the best alternatives to irrigation canals.

Hydro-Electric Power: Bigger isn’t always better

There’s no question about the importance of hydroelectric power. The truth is that in 2015, hydropower was able to generate almost 17% of the world’s total electricity and near 70% of all renewable energy. As if this data wasn’t enough, the predictions say that we should expect an increase of about 3% each year, over the next 25 years.

The reality is that even though there are some disadvantages related to hydro-electric power, the benefits are completely worth it. The hydroelectricity cost is relatively low, which makes it one of the most competitive renewable energy sources. Plus, unlike gas plants or coal, hydro stations don’t consume any water. And when there is the need to have a dam and a reservoir, we can easily adjust the amount of energy produced by the station which makes it extremely flexible.

One of the things that have been widely discussed is the impact that large hydropower dams have in the environment as well as on the lives of the people who live in the surroundings. The truth is that when there is a project to build a large dam, this will eventually imply a lot of nature destruction from deforestation to interference in the fauna and flora, as well as many people may need to be delocalized. And all these factors have been contributing to the negative press and massive opposition to the construction of larger dams.

However, one of the things that most people tend to forget is that for a dam to be able to produce hydroelectric power, it doesn’t need to be big. After all, bigger isn’t always better. The reality is that we can find enormous hydropower potential in smaller rivers all around the world. And these sites can be an excellent solution since their risks are incredibly lower beside the fact that they don’t require a huge government funding.

So, we keep hearing experts talking more and more about small hydros and micro hydros.

A small hydro usually serves an industrial plant or a small community. Even though each country seems to have their limits to the generation capacity, we can define up to 10 megawatts as the upper limit of what can be called a small hydro. Looking at the different examples that already exist in the world, it’s easy to say that the small-scale hydroelectricity production has been increasing in the last years in countries like China, Japan, Chile, United States, and India.

When building a small hydro, there are two options. They can be connected to the conventional electrical distribution network, or they can be constructed in most remote areas or in places where there isn’t a national electrical distribution network.

In the case of micro hydro power systems, these usually have a maximum capacity of producing up to 100 kW of power. Micro hydros tend to be used to provide power to small communities or isolated homes, or they can also be connected to electric power networks. They tend to be mostly found in developing countries, and they can be used to complement the photovoltaic solar energy systems.

So, what are the main benefits of having small or micro hydros instead of big hydro dams?

Small and micro hydro power systems capture the flowing water energy and transform it into usable energy. Even though the small and micro hydroelectric systems are highly dependent on the water flow, the truth is that they can provide a reliable, clean, and affordable electricity. When built the right way, most people won’t even notice that it’s there as well as it will have fewer negative environmental impacts.

1: Flood control

River valleys tend to be very appreciated, and this is one of the reasons why they tend to have residential areas. However, the quality of life may be affected by common floods. So, installing a power plant can be a great solution to prevent this huge damages.

2: Environmental Balance

Without the need to build a dam, there are fewer environmental damages. However, there isn’t the necessity of deforestation as well as the river water used will be returned unchanged.

3: Little Intervention In Nature

Small scale dams are a huge advantage for people, and they can be environmentally-friendly. The truth is that the habits of humans, plants, and animals are secured.

4: Predictable Energy

One of the main advantages of both small and micro hydros is the fact that it is very easy to predict the amount of energy they will be able to produce within one year. Since it is unlikely to have any breakdowns, there isn’t even the need to bring additional energy.

5: Durable

One significant advantage that smaller hydro dams have is the fact that they tend to last a lot longer than huge dams. The truth is that they don’t need such a high-maintenance.

The fact is that all our civilization has ever grown around moving water. It’s just a matter of looking at the villages and different industries. Some of the most common examples include cities that are built on natural rivers, companies that use industrial water loops, communities close to the water’s edge, and even man-made irrigation channels.

Summing all up, we can easily conclude that the size isn’t that important. The most important thing is to evaluate on a case to case basis. While in some places, there might be the need to build a large hydro power facility, in most cases there isn’t. With so many great examples from both, we need to adopt the perspective and consciousness that everything we built has an impact on nature. It can be in a large or smaller degree. However, we depend on the environment and nature in general to survive. So, making sure that we minimize the effects on both the environment and people just to build a big dam need to be well-thought and considered.

Damless hydro power plants and its implications

We are starting to see more and more Damless hydro power plants all over the world, especially in developing countries as well as in mountainous regions.

Damless hydro power plants are also known as run-of-river. One of the most curious facts about this power stations is that the countries that are the leaders concerning having the most and the largest hydroelectric power projects are the same ones that have been implementing more run-of-river plants. These countries include China, Brazil, and Canada.

However, there are also countries that due to their natural geography (with many mountains) are using this new damless hydro power plants. These include Austria, Switzerland, Norway, and Nepal.

What is a Damless hydro power plant or a run-of-river?

Simply put, it’s an emerging source of electricity that has been being well developed and research to make technology more cost-efficient. With different models being constructed, all of them have two things in common: the increase of the efficiency and the decrease of the costs. One of the major benefits of using this new source of electricity is the fact that the environmental damage is minimized.

One of the main barriers that damless hydro power plants have, and one of the reasons why it can’t always be the number one option, is the fact that the river needs to have a minimum flow-rate.

How do Damless hydro power plant or a run-of-river work?

Simply put, you will need to divert a part of the creek, stream, or river that needs to have a lot of elevation change. You divert it into a pipe that you’ll need to run downhill to a powerhouse. This is where you’ll be using the water force as well as gravity to make the turbine spin and generate electricity.

One of the main differences between these power plants and the huge hydro electric projects we are used to seeing is the lack of water storage not to mention the scale. While on larger scale hydro projects there is the need to a huge part of land flooded to be able to have the water reservoirs, run-of-river projects are at the mercy of the river flows. So, while they cause fewer environmental impacts, the variability of electricity is a negative factor that needs to be taken into account.

Damless hydro power plants advantages:

1: Fewer Greenhouse Effects And A Cleaner Power

Just like the most traditional and large power plant units, damless hydro power plants also take advantage of the water’s energy. However, one of the things that are substantially different between the two is the fact that the run-of-river projects don’t need any water reservoirs. So, this allows the elimination of the carbon monoxide and methane emissions that usually occur on the conventional hydroelectric plants, and that are caused by the decomposition of organic matter in the water reservoir.

2: Less Flooding And No Reservoirs Needed

One of the main issues that have been discussed about traditional hydroelectric plants is the fact that they usually have a negative impact on people who live near or on the river, natural habitats, and even the tendency to destroying all the productive farmlands in the area. However, run-of-river projects don’t require either a water reservoir as well as they don’t also need a substantial flooding of the upper part of the river. So, these means that the adverse effects mentioned don’t occur when there is the implementation of these smaller scale projects.

3: Lower Initial Costs And More Adaptable

The initial costs are always smaller than the ones that we need to deal with the construction of a high hydroelectric dam. Plus, it is also a lot more flexible since it can be implemented in almost any river, stream, or creek, as long as it has the right height. Since run-of-river projects are usually a lot smaller, they don’t need a lot of land near the river itself. In some cases, they don’t even need any land.

Damless hydro power plants disadvantages:

1: Unpredictable Power

One of the biggest problems of run-of-river power us that it has a minimum or no capacity at all for energy storage. So, this way, it just can’t adapt to the demand. The truth is that it will be able to produce a lot more energy when the flow of the river is higher – during raining months -, while they can even stop producing energy is the flow is too low during summer or dryer months. Winter months can also be a concern especially if they are built or installed in areas where rivers get frozen. This will also prevent energy to be produced.

2: Availability Of Sites

The success of the site location includes two important factors – the flow and the head of water. When we look at the traditional hydroelectric plants, they will take the head of the river and create the water reservoir with hundreds of kilometers. However, when we look at run-of-river power plants, they need to take the head of the river and get the water delivered by a tunnel, pipe, or canal built upstream of the power house. Since this factor can hugely increase the costs, it’s better to search for sites where there is a steep drop in the river. And these kinds of sites are a lot harder to find.

To overcome these challenges, there has been significant research in this area. New technologies that lower the environmental impacts have been developed. New kinds of turbines which can operate in lower water drop have been developed. In such a scenario we can say that damless hydro power plants is indeed a good solution for the production of electricity.

Do small hydropower plants provide continuous power to use?

More often than ever, we are hearing about the use of small hydropower plants instead of using the most conventional and traditional large hydro power plants. The truth is that even though they both produce electricity, large dams have been receiving a lot of bad comments from the general public and institutions. One of the reasons is the fact that it causes during environmental damages to the surroundings as well as there is the need to relocating an entire village or community.

A small hydropower plant uses the water flow or a flowing steam to produce electricity Even though it’s not able to produce as much energy as the larger power plants we are used to seeing, it also has some advantages that allow it to be one of the preferred ways to produce electricity. One of the main advantages that are taken into consideration is the lower environmental damage that it tends to cause.

But this is not the only one.

Even though small hydro power plants are only able to produce a limited amount of electricity, they can usually power up communities or isolated homes, and they can sometimes be connected to the public grid.

We are starting to see more and more small hydropower plants in many countries. However, the ones that are using this technology more are developing countries accurately to provide electricity to the rural villages where electricity grid is not available yet as well to some isolated communities.

Most small hydro power plants that we can find today tend to be located mainly in the mountainous regions of developing countries. One of the best examples is the Himalayas or Nepal where we can find both electrical and mechanical power generation. In South America, more specifically in Bolivia and Peru, these power plants are also taking advantage of the Andes. Some micro hydro plants can also be found in some parts of China, Philippines, and Sri Lanka.

Benefits And Disadvantages Of Using Small Hydro Power Plants

Benefits:

1: Efficient Energy Resource

One of the main advantages of using small hydropower plants is concerned with the fact that they only require a small amount of water flow to produce electricity. Plus, the electricity generated can still be used even if the production site is one mile away.

2: Reliable Electricity Source

When you compare hydro power plants with another small scale renewable energy technologies, this is the one that can be considered as the more constant and reliable. However, you need to bear in mind that during the winter, in the places where it is normal to snow, the cold may freeze the rivers preventing the electricity generation.

3: No Need For Reservoir

Small hydro power plants are also known as run-of-river systems. And this only means that they don’t need any water reservoir. The energy production starts with the water passing through the turbines. The water is then diverted back into the stream or the river. This causes an extremely low impact on the surrounding nature.

4: Cost Effective

There’s no question that in today’s world, we are always measuring the costs and evaluating the benefits of everything. And it should be no different when you look at small hydropower plants. The truth is that they are very cost effective. A small power plant can cost between $1,000 and $20,000, depending on the site location and the electricity requirements. Plus, even though there are maintenance costs, these tend to be a lot smaller compared to other technologies.

5: Powering Remote Villages

One of the main reasons why many developing countries are using this technology is because they can supply electricity to small communities and villages while having a long life span as well as a low-cost solution.

6: Integration With The Local Power Grid

When a site delivers an excess of electricity production, you can always integrate it into the grid. This way, when you need more electricity than the one the small power plant is producing, you can get it back from the grid as well. This ensures that the most remote villages and communities will continue to have all the electricity they need, no matter the season of the year.

7: Environmental Impact

The small hydro power plants usually have a very small impact on the environment. On the contrary, other energies like large hydro power plants or even the energy that uses fossil fuels can provoke a huge damage on the environment in the surroundings.

Disadvantages:

1: Specific Site Requirements

Even though the small hydro power plants have a lot of benefits, the truth is that they can’t just be implemented on every site. to be taken into consideration such as the balance of the system components (inverter, transmission line, batteries, pipelines, and controller), the distance between the power source and the location where the electricity is going to be used, and the stream flow.

2: The Expansion Is Not Possible

Both the flow and size of the streams or rivers will restrict the expansion in case the demand for electricity increases.

3: The Output Is Variable

One of the main disadvantages of using a small hydro power plant is that you will not always get the same amount of electricity produced. The fact is that it depends on the flow of the river or stream. So, during the summer months, this can be a problem when the small power plant is located in a dry area. The same can happen during the winter when these power plants are located in places where snow tends to be abundant which means that the rivers and streams can freeze.

As you can easily see and understand, small hydro power plants tend to be particularly useful in developing countries to make sure that all the population has access to electricity. However, there is always the need to ensure that the location of the small hydro plant power complies with all the on-site requirements. If not, these villages or isolated communities may need an additional energy source besides small power plants.

How hydroelectric dams can affect the environment?

Energy is a big part of our lives. After all, we use it for everything from working, heating, traveling, and more. But the question that remains is where does all this energy come from?

Nowadays, most of the energy we consume comes from fossil fuels that include natural gas, coal, and oil. However, part of our energy also comes from nuclear, renewables, and biomass.

Even though fossil fuels are still the primary source of our energy, the truth is that it’s becoming more costly to pump not to mention the fact that it affects the environment in multiple ways. Some of these effects include oil spills, acid rain, degradation of air quality, and the one that keeps being mentioned all the time, global warming.

One of the things that most people don’t know or don’t realize is that fossil fuels are scarce resources, meaning they will end. And the estimation date for this to happen is somewhere within the next 50 to 100 years.

But the fossil fuels aren’t the only kind of energy that has problems; the nuclear energy also has its share, Some of them include nuclear radiation hazards and dangerous radioactive waste.

Based on these facts, it’s not a very big surprise that there has been an increase in the investments in renewable energies such as geothermal, solar, the wind, and hydropowerof course. From these four, the oldest and the most used one is the hydro power.

Hydropower is the largest source of electricity in the entire world (more than 20%) and for some countries – Paraguay, Venezuela Switzerland, Brazil, New Zealand, and Canada -, this is how they generate most of their electricity.

Even though hydropower is considered a renewable energy, it also has some disadvantages.

Following are some of the ways hydroelectric dams can effect environment:

1. Disrupts Aquatic Ecosystems
In most cases, hydropower dams are built in the middle of the rivers without taking into consideration the aquatic life. So, fish and other river animals are obliged to swim against the water stream for multiple reasons. The first one is that they need to breed, and the second one to avoid being trapped and killed in the penstocks or turbines.

In some occasions, dams are built in the middle of the fish migrating paths. So, there will be a drastic cut on the fish population.

2. Dams Are Huge

The truth is that when a dam constructed, it won’t just be built in the river. It will also take a huge part of the land that surrounds the river. It’s not that uncommon to see huge forests being destroyed just to build one dam. As you can imagine, this affects the natural ecosystems.

3. Initial Costs Are Very High

An hydropower plant is no small project. In fact, the average cost of building a small one (not an average or a big one) is about $10 million. In case we’re talking about a large scale power plant, it can cost about $450 million dollars.

Even though these numbers may seem a bit exaggerated, the truth is that they’re not. Just consider the size of the water reservoir that needs to be constructed. And this is all that you see from the outside. Inside, there has to be a lot of different tunnels in the bedrock on both sides of the dam. In most cases, dams are being constructed in some parts of the rivers that don’t have the necessary roads to allow the materials to get there. So, new roads and, sometimes, even new bridges, need to be constructed from scratch as well. Only the water reservoir can cost between $10 to $200 million, varying from case to case.

Then, there is the need to have the infrastructure that allows the generated power to be transmitted to the grid. Everything adds up to the costs that can be astronomical.

4. Forces People To Move

As we mentioned above, most dams that are built need to have some land on the surroundings of the river. In some cases, this will force people who lived in the area to move out. Even though there are compensations, the reality is there isn’t compensation enough to move from your land, from where you had your home and established your business. This is why when this happens you always see a lot of angry people protesting against the construction of the dam.

One of the most famous and classic examples where this happened was with a project called “Sardar Sarovar” in India. Even though the dam construction would benefit millions of people, the government failed in addressing the resettlement for people who lived in the area. This was one of the biggest protests in India, and it included police attacks on protesters, hunger strikes, and huge protest marches.

5. The Construction Materials Need To Be The Best

When a dam is being constructed, only the high-quality materials can be used. Otherwise, there can be a dam breakage, just like the one that happened in China, in the Banqiao Dam. Due to the massive flooding, 171,000 people died and millions lost their homes.

6. Environmental Impacts

Even taking only into consideration the construction of a hydropower plant, there are already huge effects for the environment. But the problems are just starting. In some dam constructions, the natural course of the river may need to be changed. And this can dramatically interfere with both the fauna and flora. The forests around the dams are destructed as well as people are forced to move out.

The water reservoirs are a huge contributor to the emission of greenhouse gasses that can have a huge impact on plant and animals lives.

7. Dam Safety

While in the old days most people who worried about the safety of a dam were the people who lived nearby, this is no longer the case. When we see acts of terror almost every day, we can also see that a dam can be a great target to kill thousands of innocents. This is one of the reasons why the security in a dam is extremely tight, which also increases the construction cost.

8. The Risk of Drought

Since the electricity prices and the power generation are directly related to the amount of water available, we may have a huge problem when there is a severe drought. When this happens, a river tends to dry up. So, this may mean that there is no electricity generation which will make prices to rise.

Even though you may be thinking twice about how good hydropower is, the reality is that the benefits are bigger than the disadvantages. And there are several methods of Hydropower generation without the use of dams. Some of these methods are affordable, reliable and environment friendly.

How to make hydropower generation process eco friendly

Ever since 1895, when the first dam was built in the Niagara Falls waters, that the entire world has been benefiting from hydro power. Since then, millions of new dams have constructed, and some are still in use.

The reality is that from the time the first dam was built up until now, hydropower basics remain pretty much the same. However, with everyone concerned about environmental issues, both engineers and scientists are trying to make this kind of energy more eco friendly.

Hydropower is the renewable electricity that is most used around the globe – about 85%. However, scientists have been noticing that there are issues with habitat disruption, they tend to be common in these areas. Plus, there are some studies [ The Guardian ] that have been demonstrating that the reservoirs that are created by these dams are a huge source of greenhouse gas emissions.

So far, different entities, scientists, researchers, and engineers from all over the world are trying to provide answers to make hydropower better for the environment. One of this entities is the U.S. Department of Energy. But the entire hydro industry is also involved.

One of the things that most people aren’t aware of is that even though dams represent about 85% of the world’s renewable electricity, as we mentioned above, hydros are only producing about 2% of their entire capacity. And this presents a lot of opportunities in the future. This can be backed up by the Hydropower Vision report [ https://energy.gov/eere/water/new-vision-united-states-hydropower ] that was released about 1 year ago. According to it, this energy can grow about 50% by 2050.

What is important to retain from all this data is that we’re not just making future projections. The reality is that according to a study that published in the Aquatic Sciences journal, in 2015                             [ https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00027-014-0377-0] estimated that almost 4,000 new hydroelectric dams were either proposed or under construction, and most of them located in developed countries.

Based on all these developments, a new protocol launched back in 2011 – the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol -, signed up for non-governmental organizations, utilities, and an international coalition of governments. Even though the standards are only voluntary, these were the first step taken into trying to make hydroelectric dams more environmentally friendly.

Although we should only see the results of such a protocol in some years from now, many NGOs didn’t waste time and immediately started criticizing it. According to more than 60 organizations, the standards and criteria aren’t rigid enough, and there are no considerations made regarding the risks of dams setting off earthquakes as well as related to human rights.

At this point, we need to take one step aside and understand that environmental groups would prefer if there were no dams at all. They believe that other renewable energy sources can be better alternatives, like wind or solar. However, there are others who despite their main goal is to protect the environment, understand that a hydropower generation can be extremely beneficial. So, the people in charge need to have an idea about the cost of each project for the environment and the impact that is causing.

One thing is for sure – we will continue to see more hydropower. So, we just need to make sure that we can reduce the impact this energy has on the environment. And this work is already begun..

The U.S. Department of Energy, for example, is already working on a modular “plug-and-play” hydropower units [ http://hydropower.ornl.gov/smh/ ]. The primary goal is to maintain healthy natural stream functions to make sure that new hydro electrics can cause less harmful impacts. But the DOE is also working on some new environmental metrics to ensure that every new hydro electric that is built can be able to show its effects concerning greenhouse gas emissions, energy efficiency, and fish migration, among others.

More than worried about the future and what new electric dams can bring or do to the environment, many local communities and environmental groups are concerned about the fixing the current problems:

One of the main problems that keeps being mentioned is that the fish passage that needs to be restored. Most of the dams that were constructed didn’t have in consideration the fish migrations. So, they don’t have any fish ladders which prevents this natural migration to occur. As if this wasn’t enough, climate changes are also a concern here. Steelhead and salmon, for example, are two species that need to reach the cold-water habitat.

Even though fish ladders could be a solution, the truth is that they exceed the costs in most larger dams. So, one of the possibilities could be to collect and transport the fish on tanker trucks around dams.

Another primary concern is related to both the intensity and timing of the water releases. Some tests have already been performed at the Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River, having short periods of high-velocity water releases. From what it was possible to observe, this has helped restore the riparian habitat since the high-velocity waters were able to move the accumulated sediment in the river channel. Plus, this can also be taken as an advantage for kayakers and rafters, for example.

There is also a lot of research going on regarding the greenhouse gas emissions that come from the water reservoirs. Some of the solutions that currently discussed include managing the water elevation more carefully or controlling erosion in upstream watersheds. But these reservoirs also tend to maintain the pollutants that were released by old industrial practices. These can cause a huge problem when people drink this water as well as they can affect fishes as well, that are later going to be eaten.

Although removing all these chemicals from the water reservoirs is a huge logistical challenge, the truth is that a solution already presented at the Mirror Lake in Dover, Delaware. The sediments in the river were contaminated with mercury, pesticides, dioxins, and PCBs. However, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Upal Ghosh, was able to develop a method to deal with this waste. It involves a mixed solution that put into a pellet form and that these pellets dispersed in the water. As soon as they sink, they will create a layer on the lake bed which will cap and absorb all the contaminants.

Even though many environmental problems need to be studied to get to the best solution, the reality is that hydropower is already significant and it will become even more in the future. This is why we need to take action now and start implementing the different solutions on both the dams that already exists as well as in the ones that are about to be built.

How to Use Biomimicry in Your Design and Innovation

Following last blog post of explaining the basics of biomimicry, in this part 2 we will show you the process of how we apply biomimicry thinking to the design of our turbine.
When we started this project we wanted to develop a new kind of hydropower technology that could meet the following requirements:

  1. Using an operational head of only 1.5 meters and high flows to generate energy.
  2. Being fish friendly.
  3. Requiring simple components for scalable production and ease of repair.

This was the definition of our turbine design challenge. Next thing we did was to identify the needed functions and translate them to biological terms.

So our required functions turned out to be:

  1. A mechanism or organism converting energy with low pressure differences.
  2. A natural mechanism that can be found in every fluid flow and doesn’t harm fish or other organisms.
  3. Something that can happen in nearly every location, under any circumstance. Something that was based on simple principles.

Then we started to look for a natural mechanism that could fit the natural principles and these function requirements. After a study of nature, we found a process that is scalable, that can be easily found in nature and in every stream, and that never harmed fish in its natural occurring state. Besides, it could work in things as small as a blood vessel to flows as large as a whole ocean. As a result, we found the natural mechanism of a whirlpool, aka the vortex.

The next step was thoroughly analyzing the vortex. We saw that there are several guiding rules for the creation of a whirlpool and that its shape is defined by a set of input values, combined with some physical laws. We started experimenting in the lab to get to the root of this mechanism.

Nature is indeed the best teacher, and by submerging us in the matter and being able to touch the mechanism itself, we obtained a good understanding of the vortex. We then started to emulate the mechanism and simulate it with CFD (Computational Fluid Dynamics).


This process was largely based on iterations of simulations, alternated by validations with the prototype. We developed a digital model to design our turbines. We also found out that, any hydraulic model we tried to distil from the vortex mechanism, was too complicated regarding the calculation time, and too simple to describe the mechanism correctly. So we decided not to define the whole mechanism in engineering formulas, but rather follow an iterative approach to design our turbines: we applied the mechanism of evolution.

We started with our CFD model of the vortex and first created a shape for the vortex basin that would allow the largest amount of flow for a head of 1,5 meters. We based most of our designs on the principles of the vortex. One of these principles was the well-known golden ratio. We were skeptical at the beginning, thinking this might only be useful for artwork, so we started off with a quick test. First we built a prototype with a basin conforming to an Archimedean spiral. Next we inserted an extra section of basin wall that followed the progression of a logarithmic spiral. This immediately increased the flow through our turbine prototype from 8l/s to 12 l/s, an increase of 70% that was not to be ignored. Considering this golden ratio seemed to work, we started applying it to more parts of the turbine.

We then designed a first turbine rotor which turned out to be inefficient. This rotor was used as a seeding design. We applied our evolutionary methodology to it and quickly improved it with our iterations.

In these simulations we modelled the vortex, instead of designing the rotor blades ourselves, we let the vortex design them for us. In a way, this was using the genius of nature to show us the best shape for our turbine.

Have you got inspired by this post? We hope that now you have an idea on biomimicry and its application. Now it’s your turn to try out this exciting new way of thinking! Open the book of nature and start looking for solutions to the challenges around you. Feel free to share your thoughts with us below.

Hydro-Electric Power: Why Size Doesn’t Matter?

While hydropower is considered to be a source of renewable energy by the government, the construction of large hydropower dams has generated a lot of negative press and general opposition in recent years. This doesn’t mean all hydro-electric power should be discounted. When it comes to hydroelectric, people need to remember – bigger isn’t always better. All over the world, the largest hydropower potential can be found in smaller rivers with a low height difference. These sites require far less government funding and have a way lower risk than the large dam alternatives.

What Micro-Hydro Units Can DoWith the right micro-hydro units, zero-emission energy can be produced around the clock, regardless of whether it is day or night. As long as water continues to flow, micro-hydro technology can generate power with as little as 1-meter of moving water.Micro-hydro units can be used to take advantage of existing infrastructures, without the need for new construction and at a very low cost. In fact, almost all the towns, industries, even the whole of human civilization has grown around moving water. For example, there are communities living close to rivers, companies that use industrial water, and man-made irrigation canals, which we find plenty in Chile.

All of the places above have renewable energy resources within their grasps. All they need to do is tap into this hydro-electric power through the use of micro-hydro units, such as the ones Turbulent is developing.

Energy production is also much more predictable with small hydropower units, and not destructive to the surrounding environment. We’ve been living in symbiosis with these sources of moving water, and in the new energy revolution, Turbulent turbines can help us to start using the huge amounts of renewable energy contained in these.
Energy Potential with Turbulent Turbines

One benefit of Turbulent turbines is the sturdy design that requires little maintenance. As such we can install them in a flow chain, where we put several of them in series along the length of canals or rivers without driving up operational costs. This way the energy output can be increased to the multi-MW level.

In any canal south of Santiago de Chile, it is reasonable to generate more than 3 MW of clean, renewable hydropower per canal. The potential is there, it just needs to be tapped.

To find out more about the hydropower products we offer and the options available, contact Turbulent Hydro. We would be happy to discuss your needs and help you generate profits from your water flow with our micro-hydro technology.

What are your thoughts on the size of hydro power? Do you support energy production by small hydro units? Share your view with us in the comments below, and share this post to let more people know “size doesn’t matter” and small is even better!

What is Biomimicry and What is Not?

“I think the biggest innovations of the 21st century will be at the intersection of biology and technology.
A new era is beginning.”

– Steve Jobs


Photo by Geert Slachmuylders  @Gaudí´s Sagrada Familia, Barcelona
Recently Turbulent organized 2 biomimicry workshops in Concepción, the second largest city in Chile. In the workshops, our founder Geert explained the basic principles of biomimicry and how to apply them on the challenges in our daily life.

The workshops focused on getting inspiration from nature to solve a predefined problem in design and innovation. We were truly amazed by all the creative ideas and solutions from the local participants. For instance, one group came up with a design based on the natural shape of a cactus for more efficient heat radiators, and another group innovated on one type of economical insulation based on the foamy core of palm trees. It would be great to see these promising biomimicry solutions applied in the real world in near future.

So in this post – part 1, let’s have a closer look at what is biomimicry, the common misconception about it, and the 2 ways of biomimicry thinking.

What is biomimicry?

Biomimicry is easy to understand by breaking it into two parts. “Bio” means “life,” and “mimic” means “to imitate.” You can see it as an innovation approach that seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies.

Humans are intelligent. We create machines that make us faster, stronger, safer and help us in our everyday lives. But in many cases we have detached from nature and created massive sustainability problems for our future generations. We have to learn to look around us again and get inspired by nature, the world’s greatest creative director, and an amazing research lab with a track record of 3.8 billion years.

In the new design methodology of biomimicry, we acknowledge the genius of Nature, and we try to use it as inspiration to find solutions to our global problems. With this methodology we try to emulate the time tested patterns and strategies of nature to create products, processes and systems that are adapted to life on earth.

Caveat:  What is not biomimicry?

Sometimes people show examples of biotechnology such as aquaculture systems or waste water cleaning with bacteria. It is important to point out that, this kind of biotechnology is not biomimicry. Instead it is bio-utilization or bio-harvesting, and it is very different from biomimicry. In these technologies the organism is being used to achieve a function rather than being consulted.

Biomimicry is about looking at the organism and how it works, and then trying to distil your own innovation out of it. When you start to look at organisms in this way, you acquire a more profound understanding and acceptance of the being, and will respect its existence even more.

Example of non-biomimicry:

Using Durvillaea Antarctica (Cochayuyo, kelp weed found at the coasts of Chile) for the production of a non-animal based leather. This can be harvested from the sea (bio-utilization), grown naturally in enclosures (bio-assisted), or one can look at the way the seaweed constructs itself.

These kinds of kelp consist of millions of brown algae (single-celled organisms) that work together to create the larger shape of the kelp. One could learn from and utilize this process to grow leather bags from a solution of nutrients.

Cochayuyo – the Chilean seaweed          Photo credit: thisischile


Methods of biomimicry thinking

So how do you think in biomimicry? There are two ways:

–  Design challenge to biology, where you take a human problem and try to find a solution for it in nature;

–  Biology to design challenge, where you take a principle from biology and look for smart applications of it to solve human challenges.

Biomimicry is about looking at the organism and how it works, and then trying to distil your own innovation out of it. When you start to look at organisms in this way, you acquire a more profound understanding and acceptance of the being, and will respect its existence even more.

So now do you have an idea of what is biomimicry and what is not? Feel free to share your thoughts with us below.

In the following post – part 2, we will show you how we applied biomimicry thinking to the development of our turbine. We hope you can be inspired to start your own biomimicry thinking!

Problems of Renewable Energy Production & Turbulent’s Solution

Problems
Nowadays renewable energy production faces certain problems.

First and foremost there is the question of profitability: for various reasons, most sources are still far too dependent on government subsidies.

Second, energy sources like wind or solar are volatile and largely dependent on their environment which is causing grid stability problems. Other sources like hydro-power are much less affected by this. However, traditional hydro-power projects using large constructions and dams unfortunately sometimes cause other problems such as flooding, migration, increased levels of methane emissions and desertification, etc.

Lastly, there is the problem of geographical location. In remote places with few energy supplies, diesel generators are often used to generate very expensive and unhealthy energy for a few hours a day. A form of decentralized green energy production with standard materials and easy installation is needed.

Solution

To tackle these problems, Turbulent is developing a new decentralized hydro-power solution. Hydro-power is a more stable source of energy and can serve as a base load which addresses the grid stability problem.

To prevent the enormous side effects of dams, it is an efficient run-of-the-river solution which works with a low height difference of only 1m – 3m, making it feasible in most rivers. These hydro-power installations are fish friendly, relatively small and are constructed with standard materials in a modular way. Combined with our optimally designed impeller and control/monitoring software, Turbulent is able to deliver an energy source which adapts itself to its environment ensuring that it works optimally at any given moment. Besides adjusting the installation to its optimum, the monitoring software is also connected with other installations forming a learning network in order to be able to predict maintenance requirements.

Technology

Most hydro-power plant developers focus on low rotating speed of their turbine. This means that they are working with high torques and this forces them to use large infrastructures, like a concrete base made to specific specs. While Turbulent goes for small and standard, lightness, ease of installation and maintenance.

Besides, a big slow turning rotor requires lots of installation equipment and expertise to build this kind of plants. Because we use smaller components, our logistics and installation are much easier and more efficient. And the software does the rest, from efficiency control to predictive maintenance. This means that, for instance, the basin can be built using any cylindrical object that might be found locally. If our end customer deviates from the designs, it doesn’t affect the vortex shape, and the control algorithm modifies the turbine accordingly to reach the highest efficiency. The way the propeller is positioned, works and is controlled is patented.

Mission

This project is solving some of the greatest problems currently present within renewable energy. However bringing clean energy in a sustainable way is only part of our goal. The shift towards decentralized and smart energy production will be our biggest contribution. One of our target markets are characterized by having a feeble grid or, in remote places, none at all. Bringing energy to these areas will not only change energy production from dirty and expensive diesel generators towards a clean alternative, but will also increase their living standards, their general health, economic possibilities and ultimately positively affect their whole life and community.

Moreover, the technology itself has the capability of creating synergies in its working environment, by for instance adding oxygen to the water stream due to the vortex, or by combining the plant with a waste recovery and recycling system.

Future applications of this technology will be investigated, but one important application can already be found in protecting offshore wind farms from soil erosion by extracting the turbulence of flows around the mono-poles, thus increase the lifespan and considerably save on offshore maintenance costs. However, further research has to be done on this application. You are welcome to join our efforts on any future applications.

Hope you find this post interesting. What’s your thoughts on current problems and solutions of renewable energy production?