PRACTICES IN PROGRESS — Idénergie’s river turbine in transition from technological test to commercial maturity

The portable river turbine is a renewable energy solution for off grid locations designed by the Canada-based company Idénergie. The turbine is small and easy to install, and can meet the energy needs of a residence generating 12 kWh daily at maximum capacity.

The river turbine generates electricity continuously, making it a fit renewable energy option for locations close to a river. It contains an efficient generator and a smart converter, which allows the user to adapt turbine function to river conditions and maximize energy efficiency.

Idénergie’s portable river turbine participated in the Best Climate Practices Contest on Energy Access in 2014. At the time, a prototype of the turbine was powering an off-grid cabin near Montreal. Since then, Idénergie has developed new prototypes and installed the turbines in various locations in Canada.

Denis Bastien, Idénergie VP of Operations and Finance, told us of the technology’s successes and of the challenges the company is facing to commercialize the product.

What has happened with the portable river turbine since it participated in the BCP Contest in 2014?

We have evolved the prototypes since then: in 2015 we created a new version of the river turbine. 2015 was marked with testing of the turbine at different river speeds, mostly around Montreal. And we integrated a new converter.

The key to the success of the river turbine is the power electronics in it. So the management of energy is the real challenge and the barrier to other groups who have built river turbines. They make beautiful turbines but when it comes to finding a good converter and generator, which are key, they can’t find it off the shelf and the project goes down from there. So that’s our expertise—the power electronics.

Last year we installed about 20 river turbines. Our main project was with Parks Canada in Alberta, where they have a lot of campgrounds and hostels that are off grid. We installed river turbines at 8 different sites and that was an excellent learning experience for us—it was a great opportunity to put the product to a test. We learned along the way; we’ve had some problems that we were able to fix. We’ve done some upgrades to the turbines and this year we will install them again with Parks Canada.

Over the past year, we have also found that there is a lot of interest in the product. We have received calls from distributors in different countries—Italy, UK… We’ve received over a 1000 requests for information. We are a little overwhelmed by the amount of interest in the river turbine.

What were the biggest lessons learned throughout this time?

We realized we took on a very challenging project. It’s not only a technological challenge—how to generate electricity conveniently and sustainably from rivers for off-grid locations—but also a commercial challenge and a regulatory challenge.

The commercial challenge is that there is no market for such a product already, so we have to create the market ourselves. And the regulatory challenge is related to the fact that, in Canada, there are multiple regulations related to the introduction of objects in rivers and our small river turbine is subject to the same environmental assessment requirements as large river projects.

At the same time these challenges have allowed us to develop our team and develop our expertise in power electronics.

How have you addressed the commercial challenge?

We are still testing the technology so, for example, when people call us from Paraguay to install one turbine, we cannot provide them with the product yet. What we are focused on at the moment is finding distributors that could be good partners abroad.

We are also looking for large scale projects that could provide us with a good opportunity to deploy the product. For example, we will potentially participate in a government sponsored project in Chile where we would install river turbines in man-made canals. And we might also collaborate with a group of local government and NGO representatives in Cameroon on a local renewable energy generation project.

More importantly, we are looking for investors—finding funding is the biggest part of the commercial challenge. Investment has been hard to find and I think it has to do with the area that we’re in, where almost everyone has access to the grid; on the other hand, in areas like India, we have seen much greater interest.

I think the investment challenge will continue to be the biggest challenge we will face in the near future, to the point where the future of the project is uncertain. At this point we need a strategic partner who is willing to invest in the technology and gives us the chance to produce the turbines at lowest cost.

What are the main advantages of the river turbine to people interested in installing or distributing the product?

The main advantage of the river turbine over other renewable energy sources is that it generates electricity continuously, which allows for a stable supply and lower battery storage costs. When used with solar it also makes a beautiful hybrid system.

What are your goals for the future?

We hope we will be able to commercialize the product successfully. We need more companies like us, we need more investment, and we want to continue making innovative products to make renewable energy accessible to everyone.

Idénergie’s experience with the portable river turbine demonstrates the crucial role that financing plays in a technology’s transition from pilot phase to widespread adaptation. It further highlights the increasingly important role that mechanisms to match green finance and innovative climate practices might play to ensure the full impact of these best practices.