Clean energy when the sun goes down and the wind isn’t blowing

How one company proved the worth of hydrokinetic technology

To prove that hydrokinetic technology works, Emily Morris needed to demonstrate it. Denver Water agreed to be the prototype. It has a 9-mile-long canal that carries water from Gross Dam to Ralston Reservoir, which is located along Highway 93 north of Golden. Emrgy, the company Morris founded, placed 10 turbines in the canal in 2017. Each turbine can generate enough electricity to meet the needs of seven houses.

The project remains a pilot, data being collected to show how much the electricity produced can power the Northwater Treatment Plant now being constructed. But Ian Oliver, Denver Water’s source-of-supply manager, says hydrokinetic energy fits in with his agency’s broader sustainability goals. “We are always looking for ways to generate clean energy, where it’s viable,” he says. Denver already generates electricity at some of its dams, and it also has 75 miles of canals in its water system. It aims to be net-zero in its operations later this year.

Hydrokinetic technology differs from the turbines found in big dams in that it was created to harness the power of slower-moving water, such as is commonly found in irrigation canals. It came out of U.S. Department of Energy research. Morris, 32, had worked for five years for a company that helped transfer government-developed technology into the private sector. Most involved defense, but this energy application caught her eye. With a $1.25 million federal grant supplemented by $80,000 in funding during 2016 from angel investors, including Fort Collins-based New Belgium Brewing Foundation, her company gained wings. 

The market fit was in those places where extensive permitting would not be required, such as South Boulder Canal. It’s big enough for the hydrokinetic units, which are about the size of a large SUV. The economics allow for almost no on-site infrastructure work. It’s deep but not too deep, and electrical infrastructure already existed along the canal.

Atlanta-based Emrgy recently opened a sales office in Boulder and hopes for much more work in Western states and provinces. Using satellite technology, Emrgy has mapped and evaluated 15,000 miles of irrigation canals in 10 states, starting in California and moving east. It has commitments to install systems in Wyoming, Utah and California early this year, with more in the pipeline as the year progresses.

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