Solar and wind power have exploded in popularity in recent years as facilities have become cheaper to build, but up until now, this has not been true of a third renewable power source, hydropower. This is primarily because hydropower relies on large installations that require civil construction. Atlanta-based Emrgy is seeking to change all this with its small, modular, distributed hydropower installations, which can be installed without civil construction. A new partnership with General Electric (GE) will allow Emrgy to build its hydropower modules at scale and market them around the world.
In this interview, Emily Morris, the founder and chief executive officer (CEO) of Emrgy, speaks with Municipal Water Leader about the nuts and bolts of her company’s product and why it is appropriate for municipal water suppliers around the country and the globe.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about yourself and your company.
Emily Morris: I’m the founder and CEO of Emrgy. My background is not in the water industry but in technology development, and in defense contracting in particular. In one of my previous roles, I worked with a team of engineers to build Emrgy’s core technology as part of a project funded by the U.S. Navy. I was personally inspired by the kind of value that the technology we were developing could have. Our product had modular, flexible, standardized attributes similar to those found in solar power, yet used the medium of water, which is controllable, reliable, and predictable. That combination could result in more sustainable and reliable baseload power and presented an economically attractive and affordable energy solution. I acquired the intellectual property from the company where I helped build this product in 2014. In 2015, we were awarded additional research funding from the U.S. Department of Energy to continue building out the product. I was able to leverage that research sponsorship to bring on venture capital and impact investment, and we were able to secure pilot projects with the City of Atlanta’s Department of Watershed Management; Southern Company; and most recently, Denver Water. Those pilots will allow us to showcase and demonstrate our product’s performance and efficacy. Now we have partnered with GE Renewable Energy to manufacture our product and sell it around the world. With our partners at GE, we’re deploying our products to municipalities as well as to the agricultural or irrigation sectors here in the United States.
Municipal Water Leader: Would you describe your product, especially the ways in which it differs from conventional hydropower installations?
Emily Morris: Typically, hydropower installations work by converting potential energy, which is stored in head pressure, into electric power. Emrgy has realized that there are many places around the country and around the world where natural head pressure doesn’t exist and where there are environmental, regulatory, and cost barriers to artificially creating that head pressure by building a dam or impoundment. Emrgy’s product is intended to integrate directly into water conveyance or treatment infrastructure and convert not head pressure but kinetic power into electricity. We take the natural movement of the water flowing through a system and use that to generate clean, reliable, renewable electric power.
Our product is about the size of a large sport-utility vehicle. It essentially looks like a precast concrete box culvert. That box is simply placed into a channel with
flowing water, whether that channel is used for water treatment, as was the case in the installation we did in one of the Atlanta Department of Watershed Management’s UV effluent channels, or for water conveyance, as in the case of our project with Denver Water. That box culvert just sits on the channel bed. It doesn’t require any anchoring or any diversion or impoundment of water. As water flows through the box, it activates two vertical-axis turbines that convert that mechanical energy into 10 kilowatts (kW) of electric power. Each module has relatively low power density compared to your conventional hydropower installation. The power density of a conventional hydropower installation depends on the head pressure created by water impoundment. However, these water infrastructure channels typically have a reliable and continuous flow. That means that even if the power density is low, these modules provide an opportunity for high energy generation over the course of time. That can make for extremely cost-effective electricity. Our product provides the opportunity for water asset owners to harvest energy from their flowing water.
Municipal Water Leader: How much energy capacity does each module have?
Emily Morris: The amount of energy that a module generates depends the speed of the water in the channel. Our most common nameplate is 10 kW per module. That’s because the water flows we typically see in municipal water treatment and water conveyance are in the 3-foot-per-second to 5-foot-per-second speed range. If the water flow is faster, the exact same module can generate up to 20 kW with no modification.
Just as a customer rarely buys a single solar panel, we don’t expect our customers to buy one single module. Our modules are intended to be deployed in arrays. For example, in our project with Denver Water, we installed 10 of these modules over approximately 1,000 feet of canal, resulting in the first distributed hydroelectric array in the United States. While each individual module may be relatively low in power density, it’s important to note that by deploying an array, you can amass the same amount of power that you could get from a bigger solar, wind, or biomass installation.
Municipal Water Leader: Can your modules only be used in open channels?
Emily Morris: That’s correct. While there is energy to be captured in pressurized pipes or other infrastructure that you may see inside municipal facilities, Emrgy specifically focuses on open conveyance or treatment channels, where we can install our product with little disruption to the channels’ primary purpose. At Emrgy, we pride ourselves on our ability to deploy our modules in our customers’ waterways without causing major hydraulic disruptions or requiring modifications to the infrastructure or diversions or impoundments of any kind.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us more about your partnership with GE.
Emily Morris: We’re excited to have formalized a partnership with GE Renewable Energy that will help us with the growth and scalability of our product. The partnership with GE has two main principles. One of them is manufacturing. GE will manufacture Emrgy’s product for sales in the United States as well as globally. This is an exciting opportunity for a small and growing company like Emrgy to benefit from GE’s manufacturing reliability, expertise, and quality. All our turbines will be manufactured by GE and will have manufacturing and design warranties provided by GE and Emrgy, respectively. In addition, GE and Emrgy have identified significant opportunities to take advantage of water infrastructure globally for power generation using Emrgy’s product, so we’re partnering with GE to sell this product internationally. The sales efforts in our partnership are mostly focused on nations that want to use their existing infrastructure to generate clean energy.
Municipal Water Leader: Who are some of the potential clients that you’ve identified?
Emily Morris: Here in the United States, our potential projects are similar to our existing partnership with Denver Water. We see opportunities for Emrgy’s product in municipal settings across the West, including in large, well-known municipalities in Arizona, California, Oregon, and Washington. We are also in a number of exciting conversations regarding projects in Europe, where water conveyance is quite common and small distributed energy facilities are also a familiar part of the energy mix. In addition, we’re looking at a number of opportunities in developing areas in Asia, Southeast Asia, and Africa, because while our product can provide reliable, grid-connected baseload power, it can also provide new energy supplies to areas that do not have access to an existing grid. Each one of our modules’ outputs is grid-ready, 480-volt, three-phase AC power. It is a good solution for areas that are building energy infrastructure for the first time.
Municipal Water Leader: If a municipal water agency bought some of your modules, what process would it have to go through in order to connect them to the grid?
Emily Morris: It’s quite simple to do. Practically speaking, our systems can be connected to the grid or to your onsite load by your local electrician, as we do not innovate in the electrical system and use commercially available, proven equipment. Emrgy prides itself on its innovative engineering approach to power generation and in-channel installation, but we see no advantage in innovating in the electrical conversion and transmission of power. That is something that has been developed in the distributed energy space over many decades with the development of solar and wind power. Of course, we can guide a new customer and provide all the support they need. Regarding the monetization of the power, municipalities can use the power to offset their existing grid load, sell power to a utility, or use it for other purposes, just as they can with other distributed renewables like solar and wind.
Municipal Water Leader: What kind of maintenance do your modules require?
Emily Morris: Like any other type of machinery, Emrgy’s modules will perform at their best and last longest if they are appropriately maintained. We use the same materials and types of components and mechanisms that you see in conventional hydro, including turbine blades, shafts, and bearings. System maintenance can be scheduled along with the customer’s other water infrastructure maintenance. We don’t expect the maintenance of our product to require forced outages. It will need to be inspected, cleaned of debris, and maintained at regular intervals. There are no special maintenance concerns for Emrgy’s modules relative to conventional hydropower infrastructure.
Municipal Water Leader: Is there anything else you wanted to add about why your products might be appropriate for use by municipal water providers?
Emily Morris: Emrgy’s product represents a new way to either recapture existing energy within your water system or generate a new revenue stream to offset your existing electric costs or sell back to the grid. It can help ensure energy reliability, resiliency, and price stability over the long term. In addition, because Emrgy’s product does not require civil construction, the modules can be moved or relocated based on changes in water flow. They represent a long-term investment that can evolve along with a municipality. We would be excited to partner with any municipal water organization that has open-channel water flows to help them achieve their sustainability goals and to provide them with cost-effective energy in the face of rising electricity needs and costs in future years.