Start-up Natel will now accelerate development of its environmentally-friendly turbine that could significantly lower the cost of new hydropower builds

Natel hydropower turbine

Natel's Restoration Hydro Turbine (Credit: Natel)

A Bill Gates-backed investment vehicle has led an $11m funding round for “sustainable hydropower” technology start-up Natel Energy.

The California-based company will use the cash to accelerate deployment of its flagship Restoration Hydro Turbine (RHT) product, which it says offers cost-effective baseload power while “maintaining the health of watershed ecosystems and surrounding communities”.

The turbine technology has been designed to offer environmental benefits such as fish safety to hydropower installations, and can be fitted either as an upgrade to existing low-head facilities or as a brand new installation.

Natel CEO Gia Schneider said: “What the team has designed and built is the product of technical creativity and our dual mission to decarbonise the grid and restore watersheds.

“With deployment as our primary focus, we are now actively working with customers to make that mission a reality.”

Breakthrough Energy Ventures — the venture arm of an investment coalition headed by the Microsoft co-founder and including other tech billionaires such as Jeff Bezos, Jack Ma and Mark Zuckerberg — supported the funding round alongside Schneider Electric Ventures.


Natel Energy turbine could ‘fundamentally change’ hydropower delivery

Hydropower has proven itself as a reliable source of clean baseload electricity generation for power grids over many decades, but is often constrained by the size and cost of its infrastructure or by compliance issues with local environmental regulations.

Natel says its turbine can address these challenges, claiming the “extremely compact” footprint of the turbine is able to reduce hydropower installation costs by more than 20% compared to conventional low-head technology.

If the technology proves successful, Natel’s new investors believe it could “fundamentally change” how hydropower is delivered, improving the sector’s prospects of providing the renewable, low-carbon source of baseload power needed to support the energy transition.

Breakthrough Energy Ventures spokesman Carmichael Roberts said: “Hydropower has long been considered a perfect source for renewable energy, if not for the high cost of capital and inherent risks to wildlife based on most designs.

“The turbine cleverly addresses both issues – lowering the expense per unit and making it safe for the environment.

“Furthermore, the product can be deployed as a retrofit in existing installations, or rolled out in brand-new developments. This means Natel has the potential to fundamentally change how water is leveraged as a renewable energy source that blends well with other important products like wind and solar.”

The RHT has been deployed for testing at a former grist mill in Maine, where it produces 35 kilowatts of power supply to a restaurant and school, and provides excess output to the local energy grid.

A Natel Energy subsidiary called Upstream Tech also makes use of data and analytics to provide watershed stakeholders and hydropower utilities with decision-making support on how to “design, build, upgrade, restore and optimise watershed infrastructure for climate resilience”.