In the mid-1700s, Benjamin Franklin famously used kites to advance science, proving that lightning was indeed an electrical force.
Now, kites are being used to prove that power doesn’t have to pulled from the ground, and they don’t have to rely on unstable wind. Instead, power is being harnessed from the motion of fast running water. A Vancouver-based clean technology startup company is developing a sustainable, consistent device that works just under the water surface, spinning and creating enough power to run 30 homes.
And they’re testing it in the Fraser River, near Laidlaw.
The HydroKite is a hydrokinetic device that resembles an airplane on its side. Created by HydroRun Technologies over the last two years, it’s making waves in the clean energy field. It was recently featured in an article in the Vancouver Sun and was popular at the Globe 2014 trade show in March.
“We need to find better ways to produce power,” said Joel Atwater, founder of HydroRun. “It has to be green going forward, for the environment but also economically.”
There are three classifications of hydrokinetic power, he said.
The first is large hydro, which is what most of the province is powered by through BC Hydro and other large providers. Large hydro is created by flooding valleys to create a reservoir.
Then there are run of river projects, such as those in the waterways at the north end of Harrison Lake, near Port Douglas. While generally promoted as greener alternatives to hydro dam projects, they change the watercourse as water flows through a power house.
Finally, there are hyperkinetic projects. These, like the HydroKite, sit in the water to produce power. Up until this point, Atwater said, debris in the river has made things difficult and there have been no commercial use. But that’s changing, and quickly.
Over the next few months, Atwater and his team will be testing the HydroKite. They chose this end of the Fraser River after searching for suitable launch and test sites.
“Ultimately it will be left by itself,” Atwater said. “What’s unique about this is not a turbine that sits in the river and acts as an obstruction.”
The HydroKite is outfitted with radar, sonar and something called machine vision, which is as way for computers to interpret what a camera is seeing. This is all designed to avoid debris.
“The kite monitors the areas it operates in,” Atwater said. “When river users come near, it changes its behavior to be a good neighbour.”
The kite is anchored in the river, and as the name suggests is on a string. It sweeps back and forth, generating lift, and that lift is used to generate electricity.
“We see these being put in rivers all over the country,” Atwater said. “In Canada, we create five times our (energy) needs.”
The really neat component to this invention is that it puts power into the hands of those connected to it. Atwater explained that homeowners connected to HydroKite power would be collecting energy that would “roll back” their smart meter. Because of the constant movement of the river, homes would collect more power than they used, potentially. In those cases, instead of receiving a bill from BC Hydro, homeowners would receive a cheque.
“We want to export the power and export the technology,” Atwater said. “We’re a B.C. company, and we’re committed to building them here.”
BC Hydro is moving away from generation of power, he added.
“What they care about is providing power to B.C., with as few headaches as possible. What they are resistant to is solar and wind, because they are intermittent. Utilities don’t want power to turn on and off, they need consistent base load power, that’s always on day and night.”
But is it safe for the fish?
Atwater, who studied mechanical engineering and naval architecture before becoming an entrepreneur, believes it is.
“It is absolutely benign to fish because of two reasons,” he said. “Fish want to be at the bottom and the sides of the river, where the flow is the lowest. They want to be in the slowest flow, we want to be in the fastest.”
But even fish that end up in the path of the HydroKite should be safeguarded, he added.
“The conventional turbine does kill fish, but it’s not the blades of the turbine hitting the fish that kills the fish,” he said, adding that they’re very good avoiding objects. It’s the water pressure changes as the fish go through the turbine that kills them, he said, when their swim bladders explode.
“We don’t get that pressure gradient because of the shape of the kite. They keep swimming merrily on their way,” he said, and they’ve had DFO officials review their work.
A single device would power 30 homes. One kilometer of space for HydroKites would produce one megawatt of electricty, enough to power 800 homes.
He underlined the fact that it’s still in development, but he’s confident that kites are the power source of the future.