Getting Hydroelectric Power from Water – Without the Dam
Ted Christopher is a man with a mission: To help bring electric power to some of the estimated 1.2 billion people worldwide who have none.
He intends to do that through his patented invention – Volturnus – a low-profile, horizontal turbine designed to capture the energy of flowing water without using a dam.
The modular hydropower device can be used in rivers, oceans and manmade canals to generate reliable electricity.
“We're going to be able to go into places without electricity and, in the matter of a day, provide it,” says Christopher, 36, founder and CEO of Verterra Energy in Minneapolis.
“That will help power things like water purifiers, high-efficiency refrigerators, LED lighting, computers and cell phone towers so people have reliable internet access in remote areas,” says Christopher. “It can also pump water and help farmers get water to their crops.”
The invention has garnered both national and local media coverage. It was featured on CBS’ “Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation with Mo Rocca” and on KARE 11 TV news last fall.
A patented, low-profile design
Volturnus turbines are installed in "V-PODS" of five units. Each POD can generate about 50 kilowatts – enough to power 20 or 30 average homes, says Christopher.
These pods can then be scaled up – similar to arrays of solar panels – so there can be hundreds of them generating a multi-megawatt output.
Christopher grew up around rivers in Wisconsin and Minnesota and wanted to find a way to harness their energy without building a dam which can impact the environment.
Because of their low-profile design, water is able to flow over the turbines – similar to the effect of an underwater boulder.
“We don’t want to harm river ecology,” says Christopher, who has consulted with Minnesota Department of Natural Resources officials about the design and received positive feedback.
“In our testing and development, we’ve engineered it to be very safe for fish and wildlife, and for recreation as well.”
Verterra Energy has three U.S. utility patents and a design patent, eight patent filings in foreign countries and the European Union, as well as multiple other patent filings as part of its patent portfolio.
“A big part of innovation is not just the design of the unit, but being able to use a lot of off-the-shelf components,” Christopher says.
The company has plans to do commercial testing in the United States by the end of this year, with international projects ramping up in 2018 and 2019.
Meanwhile, it has been lining up customers in the United States and abroad. Most customers are project developers looking to produce energy in remote or pre-industrialized areas. These include military bases, remote telecommunications sites, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as well as governments looking for renewable power options in developing countries.
No better place for innovation
Christopher attended Minnesota State University Mankato. He did the initial development of the turbine in San Diego, but came back here in 2010 to launch Verterra Energy. Christopher now works with a team of about 14 advisers who have a broad range of business and engineering expertise honed at companies and organizations that include Boeing, Tesla, Winrock and the Department of Energy.
“This is a great place to start a device company,” Christopher says. “So many people here grow up tinkering and fixing things and doing experiments; we’ve got a wealth of very practical and innovative people with a can-do attitude.”
In 2013 and 2015, the company raised more than $500,000 from investors with the help of the Angel Tax Credit program managed by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED).
“It’s huge,” says Christopher. “It shows the commitment to actually innovating and starting new businesses in Minnesota. It fosters an incredible environment from the top down.
"That's important," he adds, "because there are many companies doing amazing work, but they don't necessarily want to be on the coasts."
- Published February 2017