The Innovators

From Atlanta to Denver, Emrgy offers plug-and-play hope for hydropower

Emily Morris, CEO of Emrgy, and an installation at a Colorado Canal
An Emrgy turbine installation at a Colorado canal, with Emily Morris, CEO, at right.

This 12-part series highlights women-led ventures in the green economy.

Some U.S. states are better known for environmental policy and innovation. For example, in all but 21 states, a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) requires electricity providers to sell a specified percentage of renewable energy. Unfortunately, the highest concentration of non-participating RPS states is in the South.

But there is a bright spot in Atlanta, a city that has committed to 100-percent renewable energy by 2035. That bright spot is a new company pioneering state-of the-art distributed hydroelectric power — Emrgy.

Emily Morris founded Emrgy in 2014, after working as a contractor building new industrial hardware technologies through federal research grants. One of her R&D projects was a new modular design for extracting energy from low-flow water sources.

"I had the fire in my belly," Morris explained. She just knew that something was special about the new hydro system, something that she could turn into a viable business. "I was personally inspired by the potential economic and community development impact that Emrgy could have," Morris elucidated. She acquired 100 percent of the intellectual property to commercialize a technology that creates continuous, clean power from areas that are typically not thought of for power producers — canals.

After receiving a $1.2 million grant from the Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy Office at the U.S. Department of Energy, Morris led private fundraising and secured seed capital. Emrgy has secured three successful pilots, with a flagship installation in the City of Denver.

If large concrete and steel infrastructure was innovative in the last century, then small, modular hardware is today's groundbreaking solution. Solar panels have spurred more distributed energy resources, but cannot provide energy around the clock. One solution is to integrate intermittent renewable energy, such as solar and wind, with continuous renewable energy, such as hydropower. As such, energy storage will not always be a necessary intervention in a 100-percent renewable energy future. 

In-stream hydro is solution No. 48 from the Project Drawdown analysis: If grown to supply 3.7 percent of the world's electricity by 2050, distributed hydro can reduce 4 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions. That's equivalent to the annual emissions of about 840 million fossil fuel powered passenger vehicles.

Large hydropower long has been plagued by expensive civil engineering costs, lengthy project timelines and ecosystem destruction. Emrgy's solution is plug-and-play: the modular parts are pre-fabricated with no civil engineering required. It's low impact — no concrete is poured into water. And it can be installed in a matter of days. Each Emrgy module is rated at 10 kW and, similar to solar panels, the technology scales by the quantity of modules installed in arrays. Emrgy's customers are water authorities and water districts that heavily rely on energy to pump and treat water. As such, Emrgy's distributed hydro system reduces both their energy consumption and costs.

Morris said her role as founder and CEO is to be patient, persistent and pleasant. "I've had to be resourceful in finding first customers, and I cannot afford to become weary from slow-moving entities," she said. Hardware is not an overnight effort; it takes time to prototype, test and scale. Morris has navigated multiple jurisdictions, organizations ranging from the Bureau of Reclamation to large utilities such as Southern Company, and two incumbent sectors historically known for sloth-like adoption of innovation: water and energy.

Morris leads by example, taking ownership of the ups and the downs, and showing the way for openness and transparency with customers and suppliers. When asked about the role of gender in founding and running a hardware company, Morris points to specific experiences. Sometimes she might be reminded that she is the first woman in a machine shop in the last month; sometimes people will ask the technical questions to her male counterparts (even though she holds all of the technical answers). Nevertheless, Morris said one "cannot let potential gender bias compromise business." Some of her previous critics have become her most outspoken allies, and I credit that to her ability to address setbacks head-on.

Emrgy has proven that there is a market for distributed hydropower, that it can manufacture and deliver modular hydropower turbines and that its product works. Now, it needs to scale. And people are the only way to make that happen. Emrgy has six full and part time employees, three based in Atlanta and three in Cardiff, Wales. The Wales-based team is a group of hydrodynamics specialists, all of whom have Ph.Ds. The Atlanta-based team is a project engineer, CTO and CEO. All have an engineering or business educational background. The culture at Emrgy is entrepreneurial and independent, with each person "fanatical about the problem we are solving," according to Morris.

While no specific certifications or licenses are required to work at Emrgy, experience is highly valued. The biggest challenge now is to grow the company and refine delivery of commercial contracts. It needs professionals who can achieve supply chain milestones and conduct value engineering to reduce component, assembly and delivery costs. Its human resources plan is to hire a director of supply chain, director of operations, senior and junior level product engineers, project engineers and project managers. The work is engineering in nature, with senior positions requiring at least five years of experience, where the ability to execute is paramount.

Morris lists two main challenges in finding talent: First, many people with the skills are already employed In addition, in the age of software technology, it is difficult to find individuals who have experience with large physical-size hardware. The latter sounds like an opportunity for those with previous experience in fossil-fuel projects such as coal and gas-fired power plants.

Emrgy's modular hydropower turbines have opened up a new possibility for continuous clean power. The company has built a proprietary database detailing over 15,000 miles of canals in just seven U.S. states that are attractive targets for installations, and with countless other low-flow waters, Emrgy's innovation can easily scale to directly solve climate change.