Growing up on a farm in Texas, there was always something going on for siblings Gia Schneider ’99 and Abe Schneider ’02, SM ’03. But every Saturday at 2 pm, no matter what, the family would go down to a local creek to fish, build rock dams and rope swings, and enjoy nature.
Eventually, the family began going to a remote river in Colorado every summer. The river forked in two; one side was managed by ranchers who destroyed natural features such as beaver dams, while the other side remained untouched. The family noticed that fishing was better on the preserved side, prompting Abe to try to measure the health of the two river ecosystems. In high school, he co-authored a study showing that there were more beneficial insects in the river bed than beaver dams.
The experience taught both brothers a lesson that has stuck. Today they are the co-founders of Natel Energy, a company trying to mimic natural river ecosystems with hydroelectric systems that are more sustainable than conventional hydroelectric power plants.
“The big lesson for us, and what we’ve been doing all this time, is thinking about the ways that infrastructure can help improve the health of our environment, and beaver dams are a good example of infrastructure that otherwise it would not exist. it supports other animal populations,” says Abe. “It’s a motivator for the idea that hydropower can help improve the environment rather than destroy it.”
Through new fish-safe turbines and other features designed to mimic natural river conditions, the founders say their plants can bridge the gap between power plant efficiency and environmental sustainability. By modernizing existing hydroelectric plants and developing new projects, the founders believe they can power a hydroelectric industry that is by far the largest source of renewable electricity in the world, but has not grown in power generation as much as wind. and solar in recent years.
“Hydroelectric plants today are built solely with energy production in mind, as opposed to the idea that if we want to unlock growth, we have to figure out both the efficiency and sustainability of the river,” says Gia.
The mission of a life
Natel’s origins come not from a single event but from a lifetime of events. Abe and Gia’s father was an inventor and renewable energy enthusiast who designed and built the log cabin they grew up in. Without television, the children’s favorite entertainment was reading books or being outdoors. The water in his house was pumped with power generated by a mechanical windmill on the north side of the house.
“We grew up hanging clothes on a clothesline, and not because we were too poor to have a dryer, but because everything about our existence and our energy use was driven by the idea that we needed to make conscious decisions about sustainability. says Abe.
One of the things that fascinated both brothers was hydroelectric power. In high school, Abe remembers pestering his friend, who was good at math, to help him with designs for new hydroelectric turbines.
Both brothers admit that coming to MIT was a big culture shock, but they loved the problem-solving, entrepreneurial spirit that permeated the campus. Gia came to MIT in 1995 and majored in chemical engineering, while Abe followed three years later, majoring in mechanical engineering for his bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
Meanwhile, they never lost sight of hydroelectric power. At the 1998 MIT $100,000 Entrepreneurship Competitions (which was $50,000 at the time), they submitted an idea for hydroelectric power plants based on a linear turbine design. They were named finalists in the competition, but still wanted more industry experience before starting a company. After graduating, Abe worked as a mechanical engineer and did some consulting work with operators of small hydroelectric plants, while Gia worked in the energy offices of some large financial companies.
In 2009, the brothers, along with their late father, Daniel, received a $200,000 small business grant and formally launched Natel Energy.
Between 2009 and 2019, the founders worked on a linear turbine design that Abe describes as turbines on a conveyor belt. They patented and implemented the system at a few sites, but the problem of ensuring safe fish passage remained.
Then the founders were making some models that suggested they could achieve high power plant efficiency by using an extremely rounded edge on a turbine blade, as opposed to the sharp blades typically used for hydroelectric turbines. The idea made them realize that if they didn’t need sharp blades, maybe they didn’t need a complex new turbine.
“It’s so counterintuitive, but we said maybe we can achieve the same results with a propeller turbine, which is the most common type,” says Abe. “It started out as a joke, or a challenge, and I did some modeling and quickly realized, ‘Oh my God, this could really work!’ Instead of having a powertrain with a decade’s worth of complexity, you have a powertrain that has one moving part and almost no change in load, in a form factor that the entire industry is used to.”
The Natel-developed turbine features thick blades that allow more than 99 percent of fish to pass through safely, according to third-party tests. Natel turbines also allow the passage of important river sediments and can be combined with structures that mimic natural river features, such as log jams, beaver dams and rock arches.
“We want the most efficient machine possible, but we also want the safest machine possible for the fish, and that intersection has led to our unique intellectual property,” says Gia.
Supercharging hydroelectric power
Natel has already installed two versions of its latest turbine, what it calls the Restoration Hydro Turbine, at existing plants in Maine and Oregon. The company expects two more to be deployed by the end of this year, including one in Europe, a key market for Natel due to its stricter environmental regulations for hydroelectric plants.
Since their installation, the founders say the first two turbines have converted more than 90 percent of the energy available in the water into energy in the turbine, an efficiency comparable to conventional turbines.
Looking ahead, Natel believes its systems have an important role to play in boosting the hydropower industry, which faces increasing scrutiny and environmental regulation that could otherwise shut down many existing plants. For example, the founders say the hydroelectric plants the company could potentially retrofit in the US and Europe have a total capacity of around 30 gigawatts, enough to power millions of homes.
Natel also has ambitions to build entirely new plants at the many non-electric dams in the US and Europe. (Currently, only 3 percent of the 80,000 dams in the United States are fueled.) The founders estimate that their systems could generate about 48 gigawatts of new electricity in the US and Europe, the equivalent of more than 100 million solar panels.
“We’re looking at numbers that are pretty significant,” says Gia. “We could add substantially to the existing installed base while modernizing the existing base to continue to be productive and meet modern environmental requirements.”
In general, the founders see hydropower as a key technology in our transition to sustainable energy, a sentiment echoed in recent MIT research.
“Today, Hydro supplies most of the electricity reliability services in many of these areas, like voltage regulation, frequency regulation, storage,” says Gia. “That’s key to understand: As we transition to a zero-carbon grid, we need a reliable grid, and hydropower has a very important role to play in supporting that. Particularly as we think about making this transition as quickly as possible, we’re going to need all the zero emissions resources we can get.”