Overnight success has a funny way of taking longer than 24-hours. longer. However, on a planet roughly 4.5-billion years old, the 40 years have blinked by since President Jimmy Carter expressed the critical nature of “preparing quickly… permanent renewable energy sources.
Overnight success has a funny way of taking longer than 24-hours. A lot longer. However, on a planet roughly 4.5-billion years old, the 40 years have blinked by since President Jimmy Carter expressed the critical nature of “preparing quickly… permanent renewable energy sources.”
While most of us were resting our eyes, Northwest-based venture capitalist Gregg Semler was laying the rails for “a simple, elegant technology” capable of generating significant quantities of power without any negative environmental impact.
In January of this year, the Semler-fronted Lucid Energy made history by transforming a sizeable water pipeline in Portland, Oregon into an environmentally friendly generator of renewable energy, and was rewarded for its groundbreaking work with a 20-year power purchase agreement by City of Roses officials. Portland General Electric’s Brett Simms says the project promises “a reliable, affordable, and sustainable energy future for Oregon.”
Semler, who has corralled capital for visionaries in “the clean tech sector” for some 15 years, is a man on a mission, the stakes only being the very survival of the planet. “Virtually every energy source human beings have used to date have an impact – often a very severe impact – on the environment,” he says. “We don’t.”
In 2011, Semler received separate, seemingly unrelated pieces of intel that he combined like chocolate and peanut butter or Oscar and Felix. One, Northwest Pipe, the largest manufacturer of water piping in the United States, was in the market for forward-thinking expansion as many, if not most, of the nation’s cities found themselves faced with upgrading water infrastructure as much as a century old. Two, Lucent Energy, a team of scientists in the Midwest had, after four years of development, successfully created a submersible power generator, their original aim to produce modest amounts of energy using the current and flow of local rivers and streams, similar to the paddlewheels that powered vessels as far back as the 5 century. Semler was intrigued with Lucent’s progress, compelled by their good intentions, but knew taking the tech to the mainstream and commercializing it would be an uphill battle – and, everyone knows: water doesn’t flow uphill.
“Anywhere water flows, there’s someone trying to capture energy from it,” Semler says. “The problem is: it’s really hard to predict the flow of water in a river and water is very environmentally sensitive. It’s hard to test this kind of tech because no one really wants you messing with their water supply – quite understandably, I might add.”
The “eureka moment” for Semler and the Lucent team when a member of the R&D team placed the turbine inside of a traditional water pipe, creating much more than the sum of its parts. Suddenly, the gravity-fed flow of water inside the piping spun the turbine rapidly enough to produce vast amounts of hydroelectricity, which can be harnessed and fed to a power grid for distribution. Semler connected the visionaries of Lucent with the innovators at Northwest Pipe to create Lucid Energy, poised now to be major players in the $750-billion of water infrastructure upgrades needed over the next two decades in America, according to a recent report from the EPA.
“Once the turbine went inside the pipe, we could control conditions, predict energy output, and do it all with no environmental impact,” Semler says. “We’re ready.”
With a Department of Energy grant in 2011, Lucid received permission from city officials in Riverside, California to lay its turbine (42-inches around) into a 25-foot stretch of piping within the city’s established water infrastructure, generating energy output to power 35-40 homes for up to 40 years. The three-year test in Riverside armed Semler with persuasive data, which allowed him to court additional municipalities. Knowing that the political world is “risk-averse,” that many of the nation’s 52,000 water agencies are perpetually in crisis management mode, essentially doing Scotch tape repair work on systems a century old and in serious disrepair, Semler was able to compellingly present the Lucid Energy alternative.
Semler’s timing was perfect for Portland, already in the midst of a $115-million upgrade, including the establishment of a new reservoir and the installation of a large, pressure-reducing valve beneath a city street in a residential neighborhood. Lucid’s aim was to install four turbines into a 60-foot stretch of pipe upstream from the new pressure valve, converting the pressure into energy sufficient for about 200 homes. “(Portland officials) basically said, ‘If you can work on our schedule and meet our deadline and work around what we’re doing, then go for it,’” Semler says. “Portland became our complete focus. The city flipped their hourglass and we got moving quickly.”
The $1.2-million required for Lucid’s installation was covered by Harbourton Alternative Energy, a beneficiary of Lucid’s 20-year power purchase agreement with the city. (“The PPA just means that Portland has agreed to buy from us the energy we’re creating, which is priced at what they were already paying for energy,” Semler says. “It’s just now they can do it without any negative environmental impact.”) The impact on end users – the residents of Portland – will be “basically, invisible,” Semler says. “”Your water will still flow when you need it to. Your power will still work like it always did. Ultimately, your energy bill will go down. Your cost of water will go down. But most people will never know anything’s changed.”
Semler hopes that Lucid Energy will be able to piggyback on other similar infrastructure renovations and upgrades around the world to woo water agencies from New York, Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Francisco, and Denver. “The pitch is simple: we have this technology. It will reduce your energy costs. It won’t harm the planet. We’ll install it for free,” Semler says. “Water agencies are finally coming around to that.”
Eventually, Semler wants to extend Lucid’s reach to international territories like Ghana, India, Brazil, and South Africa, where much of the population is critically underserved in the fields of energy and water. He says that he’s already inundated with interest from foreign water agencies and government leaders, most of whom do not treat water as birthright, like so many Americans do.
“We’re so spoiled in America. We’re so lucky to have the resources that we do. There are parts of the world where affording water and power aren’t even the question; there just isn’t any,” Semler says. “I’d like to get some work done there. Ultimately, this is a global opportunity. More than an opportunity, really; a necessity.”