Early in the semester, we studied the benefits and costs associated with hydroelectricity, a renewable energy source. We learned that dams are essentially power plants that, compared to fossil-fuel-sourced power plants, are far more reliable, more efficient (~90%), and can be powered up or down much faster. Additionally, hydropower creates far less air pollution than fossil fuel power plants. This all sounded optimal until we learned about the many significant drawbacks, including displaced communities, ecosystem disruption, silting, potential increases in green house gases from decaying vegetation, and potential for catastrophic failure that could mean massive damage and even lost life. Furthermore, given the huge effort required to build a dam and the immense associated cost (both financial and ecological), the likelihood that proposed modern-day dam projects would receive approval isn’t as high as in the past. I concluded from the class lecture that new dam construction in the US has peaked.
But a new technology offers a novel way other than dams to generate hydroelectric power. Engineers at Leviathan Energy, an Israeli company, have invented “Benkatina” a new hydroelectric turbine that uses the water flow from municipal pipes to generate hydro-electricity. This small turbine is “enclosed in a pipe, so it can be fit into existing piped-water systems” and generates electricity from water flowing downhill through the turbine. The turbines range in size and power (from 5kW to hundreds of kW’s).
I found especially intriguing that since the water loses energy as it passes through the turbine, this device can help reduce pressure in pipe segments with known high-pressure issues and even has an adaptable nozzle that allows the user to “regulate the power produced according to the pressure available.” When excess pressure in water pipes isn’t dealt with, it can lead to leaks. In fact, the U.S. loses seven billion gallons a day due to leaks (many due to excess pressure) in the water system infrastructure. We could save up to 2.5 trillion gallons of water a year and at the same time generate energy! Also, the financial gain of being able to generate energy may help offset the cost of digging up and inserting turbines in pipe segments with excess pressure (and where leaks are imminent). This technology effectively taps into a new source of energy while simultaneously solving a known challenge.
I could not find much information on the potential challenges of these new turbines. For example, how long do they last? How often do they need to be maintained? What are the implications of a failure? These are just some questions I would want answered to provide a more complete picture of the product.
Given the amazing potential of the Benkatina turbine, Leviathan Energy has received a lot of interest from water management groups around the world. Israel’s national water company, Mekorot, is piloting the turbines in certain regions of the country. Additional units are being piloted in the Philippines and there is interest from India and Italy as well.
So it turns out we may be able to produce hydroelectric power without having to build large, expensive, ecologically damaging dams and, at the same time, reduce the leakage from our water system infrastructure. Sounds like this could be a true win-win.