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Natel Energy Brings Hydropower Home with New Hydroengine

When Gia Schneider sees a waterfall – even a very small one - she sees the future of renewable energy. The MIT graduate is CEO of Natel Energy, an Alameda-based company that produces reliable, cost-effective electricity from water. From her office in the former Alameda Air Station control tower, she told GreenBeat about her plans to revolutionize the art of hydropower.

Hydropower - electricity generated by moving water – is not a new science. But for years, its application has been limited by cost and environmental concerns. In the United States, hydropower only provides about 7% of electricity generation. The majority of this comes from from large-scale hydropower: projects using reservoirs, dams, impoundments and large turbines to create electricity. Schneider believes that smaller-scale projects have more potential as a source of future renewable energy. "In the past," she explained, "everything was big. Big dams, big round turbines. There are many environmental and other reasons why it's difficult to build those these days."

Rather than building new, expensive, environmentally risky dams, Natel would like to transform the country's existing dams – both municipal and privately owned - that were built for reasons other than generation of hydroelectricity. Natel is specifically focused on retrofitting the 42,000 dams that are less than 25 feet tall and are noncontroversial in terms of environmental impact. The result will be a new source of usable, grid-quality electricity that is gentler on aquatic environments and city budgets.

With this vision in mind, Schneider and her team have built an energy-capturing, "low-head" turbine that is smaller, more efficient and will significantly lower the cost of hydropower. Natel's innovative, fish friendly device - the Schneider Linear Hydroengine (SLH) - harnesses electricity from water moving through existing infrastructure.

After successful pilot projects in Arizona and Oregon irrigation districts, Natel is quietly developing a reputation in California. Schneider, who co-founded the company with her father and brother, is excited about sharing the new technology with her home state. "This is local renewable energy," Schneider explained. "We did our research and design here, we do our assembly here, and we test and ship from here." All of Natel's manufacturing is done in the United States, which Schneider believes is currently necessary to ensure product quality. In September of 2011, Natel was awarded a $300,000 grant by the United States Department of Energy to develop and evaluate a new type of powertrain for the SLH.

With its expansive space, pre-existing infrastructure and central Bay Area location, Schneider believes that Alameda "has something amazing" in the former Air Station. "I envision it as a future clean tech innovation park," she said. For now, she is content to watch her own innovation shape the future of sustainable energy.

For more information about Natel Energy, visit the company's website at http://www.natelenergy.com.


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