Friday, January 30, 2015

Portland Pioneers In-Pipe Hydro

By Kyra Hill, Energy Fellow

Cities all over the country now have another reason to look to Portland as a model. This time, the city is leading the way as the second in the nation (after Riverside, Calif.) to generate electricity from four small turbines running in a municipal water pipe.

The technology, developed by Portland-based Lucid Energy in part through a $1 million Department of Energy grant and crowd-sourced funding, operates by running turbines in a gravity-fed water pipeline carrying fast-flowing water. While most hydroelectric projects operate in streams and rivers, these in-pipe turbines operate within the confines of a closed, 3.5 foot-diameter pipe system.


Image Courtesy of Lucid Energy 

The LucidPipe™ system has several benefits over traditional hydroelectric power. First, many hydroelectric projects disrupt sensitive aquatic ecosystems. In contrast, because the LucidPipe™  system operates within closed pipelines, it has a much smaller environmental impact. Second, unlike pumped hydroelectric systems that use energy to move water to higher ground, the LucidPipe™ system takes advantage of gravity-the pipe flows from a butte in outer Southeast Portland-requiring no additional energy. Third, unlike other sources of renewable energy like solar and wind power, which are weather-dependent and thus intermittent (without reliable, affordable storage options), the turbine operation is constant and predictable.

The in-pipe technology has several additional benefits. The acquisition of renewable energy can help cities accomplish renewable energy goals, such as those set out in Portland’s Climate Action Plan. The project can also generate sales to fund city infrastructure development. Although the Portland project is small-it will generate only enough electricity to power 150 homes-the city will receive an estimated $25,000 to $50,000 a year through a twenty-year power purchase agreement with Portland General Electric. Interestingly, the presence of these turbines in the pipe could also alleviate costly pipeline leakage by reducing pressure on the pipeline valve head. Considering that leakage and resulting stress on pipeline infrastructure costs an estimated $14 billion each year, the in-pipe technology offers an important opportunity to source renewable energy, reduce waste and minimize costs.

Aiming to capitalize on these potential economic and environmental benefits, several other cities have expressed interest in developing similar systems to the one now operating in Portland. For example, the city of Haifa, Israel, is slated for a project.

States and cities can take an active role in helping pave the way for this technology. Although these projects are currently eligible for the federal Investment Tax Credit and Production Tax Credit, the uncertain future of these credits in the 114th Congress means that credits and incentives at the state level are likely to become more important. States should ensure that in-pipe technologies are eligible to count towards satisfying Renewable Portfoloio Standards and to receive renewable energy incentives such as tax credits.

Additionally, water infrastructure is in dire need of improvement. The U.S. EPA estimates that waste and stormwater management infrastructure upgrades over the next 20 years will cost almost $300 billion, and drinking water upgrades over the same period will likely cost even more. With these costs in mind, municipalities can start planning for the incorporation of this technology by forecasting necessary improvements and building in-pipe technology into their plans.

The in-pipe technology shows promise and could be impactful in some areas. Agricultural irrigation districts and private industry, for example, could make use of the technology and reduce overall energy consumption, waste, and environmental impacts. For now, in-pipe hydroelectric projects are still rare, but the success of the LucidPipe™ system in Portland could demonstrate this technology’s strong potential. If states and cities offer the right incentives and political support for these projects, in-pipe hydroelectric technology could become widespread, helping to hasten the transition to renewable energy.

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