Thanks to first-of-its-kind hydroelectric wizardry, Portland, Oregon’s drinking water supply — a drinking water supply that’s certainly no stranger to grabbing plenty of national attention — isn’t just keeping Portlanders squeaky clean and properly hydrated. The movement of said drinking water through underground pipelines is now generating clean, renewable energy.

The first in-pipe hydropower project in the country to secure a 20-year Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) for renewable energy, Portland’s just-activated LucidPipe Power System is a joint effort between Portland-based smart water management technology firm Lucid Energy and the Portland Water Bureau (PWB).

Although it may seem confounding at first, the technology behind the $1.7 million energy harvesting project is, in reality, rather simple: With no cost to the city, Lucid Energy installed one section of pipe equipped with a quartet of 42-inch turbines in a small section of the PWB's drinking water pipeline (the utility decided to “put a turbine in it” as a press release proudly announces). The gravity-fed flow (no assistance from energy-dependant pumps is involved) of water sourced from the Bull Run Watershed spins the turbines, which in turn, generates renewable energy sold to Portland General Electric. Making good secondary use of existing infrastructure, the system is being a low-cost, non-disruptive and environmentally friendly alternative to conventional hydropower operations such as dams.

According to Lucid Energy, the system is capable of generating $20 million worth of renewable energy over the span of the PPA. Annually, the system will produce an estimated 1,1000 megawatt-hours of electricity — enough juice to keep the lights on and the appliances humming in 150 Portland homes. Revenue from the sale of the energy to Portland General Electric will be split between PWB and capital investor Harbourton Alternative Energy. Once the 20-year agreement expires, PWB has the option to take full control of the system and the energy that it produces.

According to Lucid Energy CEO Gregg Semler, it’s a win-win situation for all parties involved: “Water agencies are looking for ways to be more energy efficient, energy utilities are seeking more renewable sources of energy and investors are seeking opportunities in smart water and energy infrastructure. The industry is looking to Portland as an example of how all of these entities can partner to take advantage of in-pipe hydropower to generate investment returns and reduce the cost of delivering clean, safe drinking water.”

Speaking to Oregon Public Broadcasting, Semler also notes that unlike other forms of renewable energy, namely solar and wind, tapping into gravity-fed water pipelines is a reliably non-stop affair. “The advantage we have compared to say solar or wind is we produce electricity around the clock,” Semler explains. “It’s not weather dependent. So, electric utilities and farmers and industrial users can count on our energy from these pipes for energy around the clock.”

Portlanders curious as to where the energy-producing water pipes are located should note that the first turbine installation is located underneath roadway in East Portland — at Southeast 147th Avenue and Powell Boulevard, to be exact. The turbines themselves are 3-and-a-half-feet wide — just large enough to fit snugly inside of the pipe.

In addition to the being spearheaded by a Portland-headquartered renewable energy tech startup, the 65-foot installation— formally known as the Conduit 3 Hydroelectric Project — is a veritable showcase of local manufacturing (this is Portland, after all): the pipe itself was manufactured just across the Columbia River in the city of Vancouver, Washington. The four turbines were manufactured roughly 30 miles northwest of the install site in the Portland bedroom community of Scappoose.

First announced in 2012, the standalone project — this is the second in-pipe turbine venture for the company following an installation in Riverside, California — will be in test mode for the next couple months before going into full production in March. If all goes well on the energy- and revenue-generating fronts, additional turbine-outfitted sections of pipe could be installed. In the meantime, Semler is also looking to establish similar arrangements with other municipalities outside of his home turf. “It’s critical to have real-life examples of the technology working, to prove it’s reliable, durable, and makes sense,” he tells the Oregonian.

Via [The Oregonian], [OPB]

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Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.