With novel, fish-safe turbines and other features designed to mimic natural river conditions, Natal Energy says such a system could bridge the gap between power plant efficiency and environmental sustainability. By retrofitting existing hydropower plants and developing new projects, Natal Energy believes it can revitalize the hydropower industry.
While doing some modeling, the Natal Energy founders discovered that they could achieve high plant efficiency by using extremely rounded edges on the turbine blades, rather than the sharp blades typically used in hydroelectric turbines. This insight made them realize that if they didn’t need sharp blades, maybe they wouldn’t need complicated new turbines.
The turbines developed by Natal Energy have thick blades that, according to third-party testing, allow more than 99 percent of fish to pass safely. Natel’s turbines also allow the passage of important river sediments and can be combined with structures that mimic the natural features of rivers, such as wooden plugs, beaver dams and rock arches.
Natal Energy has installed two versions of the latest turbines, what it calls the Restorative Hydro Turbine, at existing plants in Maine and Oregon. The company hopes to deploy two more by the end of the year, including one in Europe, a key market for Natal Energy due to stricter environmental regulations for hydropower plants. Since installation, the first two turbines have converted more than 90 percent of the energy available in the water into energy on the turbines. This is comparable to the efficiency of conventional turbines.
Going forward, Natel believes its system can play an important role in boosting the hydropower industry, which is facing increasing scrutiny and environmental regulation that could otherwise close many existing plants. Natal Energy has the potential to retrofit U.S. and European hydropower plants with a combined capacity of about 30 gigawatts, enough to power millions of homes.