Solar and wind power have exploded in popularity in recent years as facilities have become cheaper to build, but up until now, this has not been true of a third renewable power source, hydropower. This is primarily because hydropower relies on large installations that require civil construction. A new startup called Emrgy is seeking to change all this with its small, modular, distributed hydropower installations, which can be installed without civil construction.
In this interview, Emily Morris, the founder and chief executive officer (CEO) of Emrgy, speaks withIrrigation Leader Editor-in-Chief Kris Polly about her company’s innovative hydropower installations.
Kris Polly: Please tell us about your background.
Emily Morris: I went to Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, where I created my own business degree. Despite having a graduate school of management, Vanderbilt doesn’t have an undergraduate business program, so I mixed organizational and corporate strategy studies. I graduated in 2009.
Kris Polly: Do you have an engineering degree?
Emily Morris: I do not. I have a business degree. I’ve worked in engineering and among engineers my whole career, so I say I am an engineer by osmosis. I try to listen as well as I can to those who have training in those fields.
Kris Polly: Please tell us about your company, Emrgy.
Emily Morris: Emrgy was founded with a vision to take the attributes that made the solar power and wind power industries grow exponentially and bring them to hydropower. Emrgy builds modular hydropower systems that are flexible in where they can be located. The modular nature of the systems allows customers to increase their hydropower capacity by quantity of units instead of by size of equipment. I founded the company in 2014 after building the initial prototypes and embedding the technology at a defense contractor. This technology was originally funded by the U.S. Office of Naval Research. Personally, I was inspired by what the technology could do and how it enabled hydropower facilities to be distributed across a number of different areas rather than relying on large, centralized facilities.
Our simple product is essentially an open 8-foot precast concrete cube with hydrokinetic turbines inside. You place the concrete box into a channel of flowing water— irrigation canals are a perfect example—and as water flows through the box, it spins a turbine rotor. The mechanical energy is converted into electrical energy, which can either be sent back into the grid or sent directly into a microgrid or off-grid application.
I started working on the company in 2015 after receiving $1.25 million of grant money from the U.S. Department of Energy to continue our research and product development. I was also fortunate to get impact investors and venture capitalists interested in what we were trying to achieve. The company has continued to grow. We have engaged in pilots with the City of Atlanta, Southern Company, and Denver Water so far. We’ve been able to prove that this technology works, that there is a market interest in it, and that it can generate revenue. We have a 10-module array currently installed in Denver, Colorado. We’re working to prove that the technology is both scalable and competitive with other forms of distributed energy generation. We’ll be deploying a number of additional installations in the United States as well as internationally this year.
Kris Polly: What is the meaning of your company’s name?
Emily Morris: Emrgy derives from the word “emergy,” which is short for “embodied energy” and refers to the total energy of all types that comes together to create a product or service.
Kris Polly: What kind of energy output do your modules provide?
Emily Morris: The modules work in a kinetic fashion, similar to a wind turbine. The speed of the water determines the power output of each module. That speed will vary based not only on where the modules are installed, but also on how the canal is operated. As the water flow changes, the power output changes as well. Each module is optimized around 10 kilowatts. That’s sort of a rule of thumb—the exact generation depends on the specific velocity and the flow pattern over time.
Kris Polly: Would you say that it is a simple design?
Emily Morris: The design is very simple. When our potential customers, partners, or stakeholders, see our products operating in the water, they usually don’t have a ton of questions. You can see the turbine rotors in motion, and it is easy to understand how they produce a power output. It is like a modern water wheel.
Kris Polly: Where in a canal is your module placed?
Emily Morris: One of the reasons that small hydropower is not growing nearly as fast as the wind or solar power industries is that most hydropower facilities require civil construction activities. We were adamant from the very beginning of the design position that our product would be portable and would require no civil construction activity at the installation site. That is why we use a concrete structure to hold the module in place on the floor of the canal. It does not have to be anchored in any other way. We have customers who want to move a module from one place to another or to take it out for certain periods of time. That is absolutely doable with an appropriately sized crane. The system can be installed and removed very rapidly for those kinds of activities.
Kris Polly: What problems does this allow you to solve?
Emily Morris: We believe that distributed energy is the future, but that it currently has a number of shortcomings that need to be addressed. Distributed power generation often has to use intermittent generation technologies, like wind and solar power, which are not nearly as reliable as hydropower. The permitting required to install a new hydropower facility in a waterway, however, is extremely challenging. Our product, which can be rapidly installed and can produce cost-effective power in a more reliable fashion—24/7 in the case of many canals—is appropriate for power generation in distributed applications across the country and the world.
Kris Polly: How is your distributed system different from a conventional hydropower system?
Emily Morris: A lot of our competitors build facilities that are small, but still centralized. They take a conventional Kaplan or peloton technology and shrink it down. We’re taking a completely different approach to hydropower by breaking the facility into much smaller modules and making it truly distributed.
Kris Polly: Tell us about your pilot with Denver Water.
Emily Morris: It is a pilot program, but it is also a commercial sale. The systems belong to Denver Water, meaning that it is our first array customer in the United States. We’re now in conversation with a number of irrigation districts and municipalities across the 17 Western states, most of them in Arizona, California, and Colorado. We are even looking at working with existing hydroelectric facilities, since our system is a great way to add capacity.
Kris Polly: Where are your turbines manufactured?
Emily Morris: We currently manufacture them in Chattanooga, Tennessee, at a contract manufacturer that is housed in a former GE wind blade facility. We are currently looking at other manufacturing strategies to increase sales and decrease costs but have not made any formal moves yet.
Kris Polly: Would you tell us more about how your technology compares to similar power sources?
Emily Morris: Obviously, when you take the head out of the power equation, the power density is going to be a bit lower. Our technology is not going to recreate Hoover Dam, but it can provide continuous kilowatt-hours in a way that is really low impact. Rather than impounding water to create the head pressure, we integrate the turbines directly into the water flow and harvest the natural
energy in it. This way, we can get systems online much quicker than is possible for other conventional or small hydro facilities, considering the civil construction activities they require. We can produce power more continuously than solar power facilities and in a more predictable pattern than wind power.
Finally, our facilities actually provide a way to monetize existing infrastructure such as irrigation canals. If an operator has the opportunity to be flexible in how it operates its canals and reservoirs, it could do so at times or in situations that provide the most energy output. It could run the system to achieve a certain velocity or do so when power prices are highest to take advantage of dynamic pricing.
Kris Polly: What kind of customer service do you provide?
Emily Morris: We can work with a customer in a number of ways. We can install the equipment and fully operate and maintain it for them—essentially just remit to them
a usage fee for the waterway—or they can own the assets themselves. We found that some of the irrigation districts we’ve been talking to, specifically in California, value service, while other agencies, especially municipal agencies like Denver Water, have a significant maintenance staff of their own. Here at Emrgy, we are motivated to expand our reach into the market in the fastest and most sustainable way possible. We are interested in working with customers in whichever way suits them so as to grow and scale our product and show the world that this is a viable alternative to other solar, wind, or hydropower facilities.
Kris Polly: What is your vision for the future?
Emily Morris: Here at Emrgy, we see an opportunity in each and every mile of canal across the western United States and the world. Canals are the simplest type of irrigation technology and are present all around the world. They are the perfect application for Emrgy technology. There are about 15,000 miles of suitable waterways just in the United States, considering their geometries, discharges, and proximity to existing power infrastructure. We’d like to see these modules becoming the base for distributed grids, and we’d like to partner with conventional hydro, wind, and solar technologies to serve communities in a clean, cost effective, and reliable way.
Kris Polly: What is your message to irrigation district managers and their boards of directors?
Emily Morris: They should know that Emrgy provides a unique and low-risk way to monetize existing water infrastructure to produce power and increase revenues, resiliency and stability of the irrigation districts, as well as doing something that’s good for the environment and good for the communities around them.