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Wisconsin company plans underwater power generator

By NATHANIEL SHUDA
Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune

PORT EDWARDS, Wis. (AP) — After an almost three-month delay, plans are back on track for a new type of underwater power generator its creator says will improve energy output to 60 to 100 times the production of current similar technology.

Maintenance work at a Canadian facility where engineers planned to test the prototype forced leaders at Port Edwards-based Innovolis to find an alternate testing site, company president Martin Hallett said.

Hallett previously expected to run the test in August in a controlled-water tunnel called a flume in St. John’s, Newfoundland. But the facility shut down for maintenance in July, halting the research.

He then contacted Alden Research Laboratory in Holden, Mass., the primary test lab for the U.S. Department of Energy, which is working to develop a fish-friendly hydropower turbine.

“It’s given us time,” Hallett said of the delay. “We did some redesign and saved about 10 percent efficiency in that time.”

As the company’s sole employee, Hallett has been quietly working for the better part of a decade, along with about a dozen other experts from throughout the country, to develop the vacuum-equipped underwater power generator he calls a vortex hydro turbine that would harness ocean and river currents.

Although the many dams along the Wisconsin River would hinder the ability to effectively use the generators in south Wood County, the Port Edwards mill site would provide the ideal location for producing the units, he said.

Port Edwards officials said such an industry would complement their reuse strategy for the currently vacant mill site, which includes a green energy business district.

Meanwhile, crews constructed a scaled-down “proof of concept” prototype of the machine in Stratford before shipping it to Marshfield for some recent body and paint work, Hallett said. He expected to finish assembling the machine today and make some minor adjustments before crews run it for several days to ensure it operates properly.

“We’re going to test the clutch and the gearing,” Hallett said. “We want to … break it in so we make sure all the parts work — so that it doesn’t run for 15 minutes and then (malfunction).”

While similar units of the same size currently generate 500 watts of power, the prototype is designed to produce 30 to 50 kilowatts — up to about 100 times more — an hour, Hallett said.

“If it only generates 1,000 (watts), we’re still 100 percent better than what’s out there,” he said. “I don’t think this test can fail in any manner unless it leaks or breaks, which is what we’ve been trying hard to make sure doesn’t happen.”

Unlike wind and solar energy, water currents can provide a continuous and predictable source of energy, according to Wisconsin Focus on Energy. In addition, hydro systems require less operation and maintenance time than other renewable energy sources.

“We do see a lot of new things in the pipeline,” said Peter Taglia, a staff scientist for Clean Wisconsin, a statewide environmental advocacy group. “What I like about it is what all of these technologies are showing is we do have a large amount of innovation right now.”

Innovolis is just one example of such innovation, which has led to an increasing number of renewable energy projects in the state and nationwide, Taglia said.

On Nov. 12, Hallett will take the device to the Alden lab, where scientists will test it. If the prototype works, he will need to raise about $15 million to hire the necessary staff and another $140 million to produce the full-size units, which would generate 50 megawatts of power each.

“I then have to take it back and have it independently verified,” he said. “There is plenty of work yet to be done, but once you have a working model, then organizations … have money for you because you have a working model.”

Within the next 10 years, Hallett hopes to hire about 900 people and begin producing full-size units.

Information from: Daily Tribune, http://www.wisconsinrapidstribune.com

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