Hydropower—converting moving water into energy—is the single biggest source of clean power in the world, but relies on a 200-year-old technology that hasn’t changed all that much.
Natel Energy, a California-based hydro power startup, has developed a new turbine that updates that technology, and now the company is raising $11 million in a funding round led by Schneider Electric Ventures and Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a fund helmed by Bill Gates.
The turbine lowers the construction cost of power plants, because it requires less cement and steel. It also allows for safer passage for fish, which has become a stringent environmental regulation for these types of projects in both the U.S. and Europe.
Natel Energy was started by two engineers and siblings, Gia and Abe Schneider (no direct connection to Schneider Electric).
Before founding the company in 2009, the Schneiders worked in the energy industry.
Gia worked on the commodities trading desk at Credit Suisse and Abe worked for Makani, a Google-funded startup that used kites to convert wind energy into electricity.
In 2019, Natel began operating its first hydropower plant in Maine, converting a former mill into producing 50 kilowatts of electricity (enough to power 30 homes). The startup is building another power plant in Virigina and has received approval for a third in Oregon.
Chief Executive Officer Gia Schneider said she was hoping that the coronavirus pandemic wouldn’t affect the construction timelines, but couldn’t be sure. Additionally, the U.S. developer Symbion Power will be using Natel’s turbine at a micro-grid project in Rwanda.
Though not always cheaper, hydropower can be complementary to much cheaper solar and wind power—providing much more reliable power even when the sun isn’t shining and the wind doesn’t blow.
The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that the country has the potential to supply more than 50,000 megawatts through the use of small hydro power and about 4,300 megawatts simply through upgrading existing infrastructure.
Breakthrough Energy Ventures aims to invest in startups that are each capable of cutting emissions by 500 million metric tons annually.
The fund’s investors include Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com Inc., and Masayoshi Son, founder of SoftBank Group Corp. Michael Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, is a backer of Breakthrough.