Startup to produce electricity with Portland's drinking water

"To me, Portland is the best place on the planet to build a clean-tech company," president and CEO Gregg Semler told me over the phone. "If you can't find somebody in Portland or in the Northwest interested in technology for clean-tech startups, you're missing something."

How it works

I'll leave the detailed engineering to someone else, but here are the basics on how it works: Water moving through the city's pipes creates energy that's typically wasted. Lucid Energy will install turbines in the city's main water pipe (see photos) and turn that energy into electricity. The city will be able to sell some of that power back to PGE and make money.

Semler says a private investor will foot the bill, meaning the city gets the clean energy for free. The investor will own the system and will split the revenue with the city.

He plans to keep a similar financial model if the project is further implemented.

"This is really a move on the part of the city to reduce the cost of delivering safe, clean drinking water," Semler said.

Construction on the pilot project is set to begin in mid-March in the area of SE 147th and Powell Boulevard. The four turbines will create enough around-the-clock energy for up to 150 homes.

"It seems like a very promising technology," said Associate Professor of Law Melissa Powers. Powers teaches energy and renewable energy classes at Lewis and Clark Law School and is on the board of the Northwest Environmental Defense Center. She says Lucid Energy offers reliability and efficiency.

"The power generation would occur in the city, close to the site of consumption. A number of studies have identified the many benefits of this type of distributed power."

But Powers acknowledges downsides too, including the uncertainty that comes with any startup.

"The technology is still new, so it will take some time to fully examine the risks," Powers said. She also questions how long it would take to get the full benefit of a more widespread project.

"It seems like installation will be slow and cumbersome," Powers explained. "It might take awhile to make the turbines meaningful power producers."

She's encouraged that the project underway in Riverside, Calif. seems to be going well.

Lucid Energy, Inc. is also working with San Antonio, Texas and Haifa, Israel. China has also shown interest. But Portland will have the first and largest commercial project.

"We're really excited that Portland is willing to do this project. It's hard to be innovative in the water space because it's a conservative industry, but this really helps us scale our business," Semler told me. "Eventually everyone's going to say, 'why aren't we doing it?', and as a startup, you have to get to that tipping point."