Portland now partly powered from drinking water

Interesting Engineering

If you're living in Portland, Oregon, then there's a high chance that your home is now partly powered by your drinking water. A new system generates hydroelectricity from the water flowing around the city much like a dam would but it doesn't come with the devastating effects on the surrounding environment.

3041300-inline-i-1-portlands-new-pipes-3-piece-copy[Image Source: Lucid Energy]

The idea is a rather simple one; small turbines in the pipes are spun by the flow of water and a generator creates electricity. It's a genius little idea that leaves you wondering why this hasn't been done before.

"It's pretty rare to find a new source of energy where there's no environmental impact," says Gregg Semler, CEO of Lucid Energy, the Portland-based startup that designed the new system. "But this is inside a pipe, so no fish or endangered species are impacted. That's what's exciting."

3041300-inline-i-2-portlands-new-pipes-singlerubine1-copy[Image Source: Lucid Energy]

Water utilities use massive amounts of energy to treat and provide clean drinking water but the new system has reduced costs. The utilities can now use the energy themselves or even sell it to the city.

"We have a project in Riverside, California, where they're using it to power streetlights at night," Semler says. "During the day, when electricity prices are high, they can use it to offset some of their operating costs."

One of the main pipeline's in Portland has been installed embedded with Lucid's tech and although it doesn't quite generate enough power to run the city, it can offset the needs of single buildings such as schools or public libraries. The money saved can then be used to improve the city.

Another advantage the system has over other renewable sources is that it is completely independent of weather conditions; electricity can be generated at any time of day and in any conditions. Other sources such as solar or wind rely on good weather conditions for optimal performance.

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3041300-slide-s-3-portlands-new-pipes-20130322-nsf-61-lucidpipe-credit-jamie-newton-bluehouse-24-editjpeg[Image Source: Lucid Energy] 3041300-slide-s-6-portlands-new-pipes-lucid-049-credit-sherri-kaven[Image Source: Lucid Energy]

Of course if water is pumped around a city you can't generate any electricity, you'd just lower the efficiency of the current system. But if you live in an area where gravity is responsible for the water flow you're looking good.

Whilst installing the pipes Lucid Energy also implements a method of monitoring water flow, something utilities couldn't do in the past.

"We made electrical infrastructure really smart over the last 20 to 25 years, but the same hasn't happened in water," Semler says. He points to the example of a pipe that burst near UCLA last year, wasting a staggering 20 million gallons of water in the middle of California's crippling drought.

"They didn't really know that the pipe burst until somebody from UCLA called," Semler explains. "Our pipe can get indicators like pressure, a leading indicator for whether a pipe is leaking or not. So before it bursts and before we waste all the water, there are onboard information systems that water agencies can get to more precisely manage their infrastructure."

The tech also monitors the water and can check its quality.

"There's a lot of energy in going into making sure we have safe clean drinking water," Semler says. "Our focus is really on helping water become more sustainable."

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