Canal-Based Turbines, Energy from Wastewater Win Water-Tech Prizes

Canal-Based Turbines, Energy from Wastewater Win Water-Tech Prizes

When the inaugural Water Efficiency awards were handed out by Imagine H2O in March 2009, the nonprofit had already begun planning its next competition, and how it would expand the category of water-based startups to focus on the "Water-Energy Nexus."

As obscure as that topic might seem at first glance, their call for entries garnered more than 50 companies from around the world, all from entrepreneurs who've created businesses to reduce the energy needed to move and treat water and wastewater.

At the awards ceremony in San Francisco last week, three companies were honored with prizes. The first-place winner is Seattle-based Hydrovolts, which has created a technology to put floating hydro-kinetic turbines in canals to generate energy from the water that is already traveling in, for instance, irrigation canals on farmland.

Two runners-up were also awarded prizes last week: Blackgold Biofuels and FOGBusters, both of which generate energy by capturing the fat, oil and grease (FOG) from wastewater.

Together, these companies, as well as seven other finalists, are mapping a path to more efficient managing and transportation of water, while gathering renewable energy from the water in our everyday lives. The three winners will take home a combined $100,000 in cash and business and legal support, as well as gain access to Imagine H2O's network of partners, customers and financiers to help bring their products to market.

"Remarkably, these companies are turning cost-centers into profit-centers and unlocking important energy potential to make our water infrastructure more efficient and robust," Kate Gasner, Imagine H2O's Prize Manager, said in a statement announcing the winners.

Hydrovolts and the Energy Canals

With its hydrokinetic turbines, Hydrovolts has tapped into a broad and previously unrecognized energy source. Canals of varying sizes are in use around the world, from farms to water treatment facilities to hydropower plants, are generally managed by engineers, easy to access and have predictable water flows.

figure 1 - hydrovolts

A single turbine can generate from one to 25 kilowatts of power, enough to power several American homes or an entire village in the developing world. The technology is easily shipped, easily installed and easily maintained, and can be used to power living areas or remote sensors, and in areas with rapid enough flows of water, can be scaled-up to generate utility-level amounts of energy.

"We're very optimistic about the global market opportunity," Hydrovolts CEO Burt Hammer said in a statement. "Canals are an untapped energy resource, and they are essentially the same around the world so we expect to expand our impact rapidly. Participating in the Imagine H2O contest helped us refine our business plan, recruit investors, and initiate new partnerships. We're thrilled about continuing to work with Imagine H2O's ecosystem for water entrepreneurs."

Generating Energy from the FOG

The two runners-up for the Imagine H2O Water-Energy Nexus prize are tapping the same market, and one that shows the double impacts that accrue from generating energy out of waste water.

Blackgold Biofuels is currently running a test program at San Francisco's Wastewater Treatment facility that is taking the fat, oil and grease out of that city's waste water and turning it into biofuels -- a process that not only reduces the amount of energy needed to treat the water, but which also generates green fuels that can be used on-site or sold as an additional revenue stream.

 blackgold biofuels

Working in the same space, FOGBusters has developed and patented its technology that takes a chemical-free approach to wastewater treatment and FOG-harvesting. So far, the company has targeted food processing plants, but its CEO said that it's starting to gain some traction in the oil and gas sector.


Growing the Market for Water Efficiency

While these three firms are the winners of this year's prize from Imagine H2O, the sheer number of entrants into the competition, as well as the breadth of areas they cover, indicate just how large and potentially fruitful the water-energy market can be.

Among the other finalists, according to the organization's blog, were:


Agua Via develops a 1-atomic layer thick nanotech membrane that enables desalination at a 66% energy reduction and 50% cost reduction, providing energy-efficient purification and wastewater remediation.

mOasis harnesses water on any land in the world so that plants grow and the planet can restore its ability to sustain life.

NLine Energy, Inc. converts wasted energy found in water transmission and distribution systems into renewable energy.

Pilus Energy harnesses genetically enhanced bacteria in scalable electrogenic bioreactor and harvests the electricity and biogases from their metabolism of organics like those found in wastewater.

Puralytics solves critical water contamination problems with environmentally superior products.

Solar Machines' non-PV based technology directly and efficiently converts solar energy into mechanical work for water pumping applications.

Water Resources Management Co helps water utilities realize the full benefits of their investments in advanced meter reading, system control and asset management.


Tens of thousands of dollars in prize money is certainly enough to help a fledging company get a toehold in the market; but the larger goal of Imagine H2O's work is raise awareness of the potentially huge impacts that wide adoption of these technologies could have.

The group cites EPA estimates that suggest 100 million kilowatt-hours of energy savings if just 1 percent of homes installed some water-efficiency technologies, a move that would avoid the emission of some 80,000 tons of GHGs. Water is also a hidden energy hog: In California, as much as 19 percent of the state's energy use is directed solely at moving, heating, cooling and recycling water.

Photo CC-licensed by Kabacchi. Inline photos courtesy of ImagineH2O.