Power of the Pipes: Lucid Energy Generates Electricity Inside Water Utility Pipes

January 17, 2013

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Hydrofoil blades inside a LucidEnergy turbine. Credit: LucidEnergy.

Hydrofoil blades inside a Lucid Energy turbine. Credit: Lucid Energy Inc.

Hydroelectric power is one of the oldest green energy technologies in the world, dating as far back as the early 1800s. But it is far from the ideal. Hydroelectric dams have been known to cause degradation in water quality from increased temperatures, loss of oxygen content, siltation, and gains in phosphorus and nitrogen content. They can also disrupt wildlife. Even the more modern tidal power systems can have negative ecological effects.

But what if you could generate hydroelectric power simply by turning on your sink or shower? For some cities, this is no longer a “what if” but “when” scenario.

Based in Portland, Ore., Lucid Energy Inc. developed a new technology using wind energy principles. By installing large turbines inside water utility pipes, the company generates electricity using the water flow. The turbines will produce power as long as water is moving through the pipes -- which is nearly always.

The company was founded in 2007 and is backed by Northwest Pipe Co., Vancouver, Wash., one of the largest steel pipe manufacturers in the U.S. Lucid Energy received a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, which was used to fund a pilot installation in Riverside, Calif. The Riverside unit has been commercially operational since January 2012.

According to Josh Thomas, engineering program manager for Lucid Energy, the turbines are placed in areas where the pipes have “a net loss in elevation,” meaning the water is flowing down. The hydrofoils spin perpendicular to the flow direction. Up to four turbines can be installed in a standard 40-foot section of pipe. The design of the blades causes almost no reduction in flow, and the blades themselves will turn in a wide range of pressure and flow conditions.

The turbines are often placed upstream from pressure valves. Thomas said standard procedure at water utilities is to utilize pressure reducing valves to reduce excess pressure not needed for delivery. “That’s part of their normal everyday operation, but it’s energy that can be better spent,” he said. The pressure can instead be extracted by  the turbines to create electricity.

In addition to the single-turbine unit operating in Riverside, Lucid Energy has signed deals with the San Antonio Water System (SAWS) in Texas, as well as the Portland Water Bureau in the company’s home town. SAWS will begin installation of three turbines early this year, while Portland is estimating it will place four by this June.

One major benefit of the Lucid Energy system is that, unlike solar and wind power, the conditions needed to create electricity are much more stable and predictable -- and for the most part highly controllable. Not to mention, there’s no concern of disrupting wildlife inside a water utility pipe. The city may also have the option to use the power to offset their own energy usage. ClimateSolutions.org estimates that 6 percent of the energy consumed in the U.S. is used to purify and deliver water.

pipeA single pipe containing three or four turbines could generate about 1,000MW-hours per year of electricity -- enough for about 100 to 150 homes. The company claims the power it generates costs about 5 to 9 cents per kilowatt hour, which is substantially cheaper than in many parts of the country. Lucid Energy’s hometown of Portland charges 10 to 11 cents per kilowatt-hour. Some parts of California charge twice that much.

However, Lucid Energy is struggling against highly dated hydroelectric power legislation, some of which goes as far back as 1937, according to Thomas. He said, “Technology is being installed in pipelines that are there anyway and are performing a function that other pipe components would perform anyway, except we’re also generating electricity. The problem is that we may be subject to certain requirements simply because we are generating electricity with water.”

The company has been working with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to address the discrepancies between older and newer hydroelectric power technologies, which also includes tidal power. Thomas said the firm has already achieved some important exemptions.

Another challenge the company faces with its product, Thomas noted, is that it’s most cost effective when the installation takes place as part of a renovation, repair or other job. Fortunately, no one at Lucid Energy is fazed by this. “Water infrastructure upgrades are a normal part of the industry. So there is always some kind of project underway,” Thomas added.

According to an article in the Portland Tribune, backer and partner Northwest Pipe has a bead on exactly where the most infrastructure work is needed. That’s where the Lucid Energy is pitching its product. The World Bank estimates that worldwide costs from leaks in water pipelines total $14 billion annually. The U.S. EPA estimates that $650 billion in water infrastructure upgrades will be needed to replace aging pipelines and to satisfy new demand over the next 20 years. Every single upgrade represents an opportunity to generate clean energy.

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