WisBusiness: New hydro turbine could increase state renewable energy portfolio

By Ali Schultz

As society looks for ways to produce more energy with a smaller environmental footprint, recovering energy from existing dams may provide a solution that actually holds water.

Steinbine Development LLC of Watertown, Wis., has developed the Steinbine Systems “New Hydro,” which is an impulse turbine that can provide renewable energy and green power in a distributed energy system. It will initially be focused on energy recovery from river dams.

“Imagine a long rolling pin stretched across the base of the dam,” said Mueller. “Rather than the water hitting the bottom of the apron and being wasted, the falling water hits the outer edge of the rolling pin and is converted into power.”

The Steinbine concept was born over 20 years ago when engineer Mark Steinert, through his inside knowledge of electrical plant operation, took note of wasted energy from current river dams. The Steinbine idea has been refined and tuned over the past 20 years, and with today’s consumer interest in renewable energy and escalating fuel costs the market maybe ripe for such a system.

Steinert’s partners include Randal Mueller, Joseph Millevolte, Bob Wetsel and Philip Kraushaar, all of whom are working to implement the first Steinbine System. The idea was a semi-finalist in the 2008 Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest.

The Steinbine is able to produce electricity with no fuel costs, no greenhouse gas emissions and minimal localized environmental impact. Steinbine Development even hopes to pair its technology with other renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power, helping to bolster renewable energy sources for a sustainable future.

There are common misconceptions about the actual number of dams available to place a Steinbine turbine.

The company is looking to place Steinbine Systems in privately owned dams that do not currently produce hydroelectricity, thus giving the owner a revenue source. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates there are 2,100 megawatts of wasted energy potential from existing river dams nationwide. According to the company’s research, fewer than 200 of the 1,160 dams in Wisconsin – 56 percent of which are privately owned – produce hydroelectricity. In the United States, more than 95 percent of the 79,000 dams (55 percent privately owned) do not produce hydroelectricity.

The Steinbine provides a logical source of revenue for the private dam owner. Compared to the conventional turbine, the Steinbine demands a much smaller expenditure. Conventional turbines cost anywhere between $2,500 and $3,000 per kilowatt, the Steinbine will be less than $1,000 per kilowatt, with the added benefit in return on investment projected between three and four years.

The company’s immediate goal is to have several Steinbine Systems installed and functional by September 2008. Initially small scale installations will be implemented in order to closely observe any challenges and learning curves that may present themselves on larger installations. These installations will be assisted financially when the company is able to secure a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy in April 2008.

The private dam owner who chooses to install a Steinbine System will form an LLC with investors and the company. The dam owner will have an expected 7 to 12 percent return and capital investors can expect a 12 to 18 percent return.

Regulatory forces will likely present the largest challenge for Steinbine Development. The DNR requires an in-depth inspection system in the areas of engineering, navigation, public trusts and fisheries.

“Fisheries are definitely our main obstacle. I think that we can demonstrate what is needed mathematically and with just a little more research on our part,” said Mueller, who believes Wisconsin’s new goal of clean renewable energy by 2025 presents the perfect opening for Steinbine Systems.

Schultz is a senior in the UW-Madison Department of Life Sciences Communication.