Jungle juice: Turbulent harnesses the power of rivers and streams everywhere

Summary

A Leuven start-up is bringing electricity to remote areas with its eco-friendly hydropower installations

The river wild

The image of hydropower is closely linked to that of huge, costly dams that have a detrimental impact on the surrounding environment. But the Flemish start-up Turbulent aims to improve that reputation with water turbines that convert the power of small streams into inexpensive, eco-friendly energy.

The innovative process is of particular interest to villages in remote areas but can be installed anywhere. The micro-hydropower systems designed in Leuven by Turbulent are already providing electricity to farming communities in Chile and to the Green School in the jungle of the Indonesian island Bali.

The story behind the Bali project stems from a visit that Geert Slachmuylders, co-founder of Turbulent, paid to the school – one of four eco-oriented international schools worldwide – on his honeymoon. “The Green School has a special ecological focus, and I took a tour in which the team showcased its sustainable methods, including a small, older hydropower turbine,” relates Slachmuylders.

But this turbine didn’t work anymore. “It turned out that it had broken down during a flood.”

We offer an alternative to small-scale dams that is much easier and cheaper to install

- Turbulent co-founder Geert Slachmuylders

The school now has a Turbulent turbine (pictured above) that is better able to withstand local weather conditions, especially rough during the wet season. Soon after installation, it was indeed hit by a flood – and passed the test with flying colours.

But the history of Turbulent started earlier, in 2012, when Slachmuylders participated in a Flemish cleantech competition – the Cleantech Challenge – with his idea for small-scale vortex water turbines that extract energy from rivers or canals. The idea was the topic of his thesis at KU Leuven at the time.

At the Cleantech Challenge, he met legal and financial expert Jasper Verreydt, now CEO of Turbulent. Together with ICT specialist Luc Berben, they founded the company in 2015.

With their technology, they provide an alternative for the dams that not only require great investments and infrastructure works, but often also wreak havoc on local ecosystems and communities. “We are not going to replace the massive installations that can generate huge amounts of energy,” admits Slachmuylders, “but we offer an alternative to small-scale dams and run-of-the-river hydroelectricity that is much easier and cheaper to install and that doesn’t have a negative impact on the local environment.”

Geert Slachmuylders (third from left) with the engineering team at the Green School in Bali

Turbulent’s plants can harness the power of any small river, waterfall or canal with a height difference of just 1.5 to five meters. In Europe alone, the company identified over 350,000 sites that are perfect for its method. The energy supply is constant, unlike that of solar panels and windmills, which stop producing energy when there is no sun or wind.

A micro-hydropower plant consists of components that can be installed by local workers under the guidance of a Turbulent engineer, after which it can be started up in about a month. It is estimated that it offers a return on investment within four to eight years.

Their uncomplicated structure also makes it straightforward to maintain them. “We think that a plant should last at least 25 years without needing major repairs,” says Slachmuylders. Such characteristics make the innovation an ideal solution for remote areas with little to no access to reliable energy.

Our main challenge lies in clearing up the many misunderstandings around hydropower

- Geert Slachmuylders

Thanks to a stint in a business incubator in Chile, the Leuven-based company has already set up several projects there. But new installations in Taiwan, the Philippines, Suriname, France and Estonia are in the pipeline.

At home, Turbulent has only tested a prototype – in 2016 on the grounds of Kleerbeek castle, near their homebase. “We are working with many local partners and have received a lot of support from the government in the development and distribution of our technology,” says Slachmuylders. “But complex regulatory procedures unfortunately make it difficult to apply it here.”

His ultimate dream, he says, “is to contribute to the creation of energy islands here, small communities that support themselves just with renewable energy. Not only the hydropower we specialise in, but also other types.”


He estimates that one of their 100kW hydropower installations could provide electricity to about 500 households in Belgium. In remote communities, with lower energy needs, that number can be doubled.

In the Philippines, Turbulent will soon connect different installations to each other for the first time. This will open up many more rivers for sizeable hydropower installations, increasing the power supply.

The young company is also working on incorporating wood or metal in their public works project, which they would use to replace concrete in certain cases. That would make it easier to transport the parts to areas that are hard to reach and speed up installation to just a few days.

“But our main challenge lies in clearing up the many misunderstandings around hydropower,” Slachmuylders explains, “like comparing it to solar power. You can produce much more energy in a year with our turbines than with solar panels. That comes as a surprise to many clients.”

In its relatively short existence, Turbulent has already picked up several awards and grants. In 2016, Slachmuylders made it onto MIT’s influential Innovators Under 35 list, which recognises outstanding young innovators. Last year, Turbulent obtained a grant worth €2.4 million through the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.

Photos courtesy Turbulent