An Ottawa firm that says it’s discovered a commercially viable way to generate electricity from slow-moving water is quickly picking up steam, thanks to some big-name backers.
Founded nine years ago, Waterotor Energy Technologies has created a patented device that harnesses the power of water that flows as slowly as three kilometres an hour. The Waterotor isn’t big – units range from the size of coffee tables to SUVs – but CEO Fred Ferguson says it is mighty.
An aerospace engineer with more than 35 years of experience, he says the torque generated by the rolling drum-like invention is strong enough to extract about two-thirds of the energy from the water that pushes its curved arms.
Ferguson says the Waterotor is far more efficient than other forms of hydrokinetic energy such as propellers and more reliable than other sources of green energy such as wind or solar power because rivers and ocean currents are constantly flowing.
“Like a barn door in a very light breeze, (rotors) move regardless of the water speed,” he explains, adding water is hundreds of times more powerful than wind.
Ferguson says the rotor’s “sweet spot” is water that flows about 6.5 km/h – a common speed for rivers and ocean currents such as the Gulf Stream off the coast of Florida. At that rate, he says, the Waterotor can create electricity at a cost of about five cents per kilowatt hour, a price that makes it a feasible alternative to fossil-fuel-powered generating stations.
“Canada has more rivers than any other country in the world, so we’re in the right spot,” he adds. “All of that energy, if somebody is able to extract it on a massive scale, will potentially change the electrical footprint for North America.”
Ferguson says the trend toward greener forms of transportation still comes with an environmental cost because fossil fuels currently generate most of that power that goes into batteries.
“Everybody's going to be driving around in their electric cars thinking they’re saving the planet while the coal generators are running like crazy to keep up,” he says. “We’re a good solution to that.”
Despite being a small, privately owned company with just a handful of employees, Waterotor has managed to raise $27 million over the past decade in its bid to prove its technology can work on a mass scale. Among its 170 shareholders are high-profile investors such as Jeff Hunt, a former partner in the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group.
“The ability to harvest energy from slow-moving water is something that’s eluded people,” says Hunt, who met Ferguson at a business networking event a couple of years ago and was instantly captivated by his invention. “Nobody’s cracked the code. It would be world-changing.”
Now, after years of painstaking research, Ferguson says he and his team of engineers are on the verge of a market breakthrough.
They’ve spent the past several years testing the technology in collaboration with researchers at Memorial University of Newfoundland’s Fisheries and Marine Institute in St. John’s as well as the Canadian Hydrokinetic Turbine Test Centre in Manitoba.
Another major trial is just around the corner. The firm recently landed a $1-million deal with the Royal Canadian Navy that will see four Waterotor units installed in Northern Canada as part of the navy’s long-term bid to find cheaper sources of energy for telecommunications equipment, remote sensors, batteries and other technology that’s now powered by expensive fossil-fuelled generators.
Ferguson says the company is also close to landing an additional $10 million in financing from a U.S. investment bank so it can make a final push to prove that not only does the Waterotor work, but that it works at a price customers are willing to pay.
“It’s one thing to build a better mousetrap, but it’s not going to go very far unless that mousetrap is cheaper than a cat,” he explains.
Ferguson figures his device is less than a year away from being market-ready. He says he’s already in talks with a number of global energy companies, including Energisa of Brazil and Italy’s ENEL, about commercializing the Waterotor.
He says his ultimate objective is not to create a global powerhouse of his own but to license the technology or forge partnerships with corporations that have the financial heft and marketing savvy to spread the concept around the world. Ferguson says he expects to have a corporate “big brother” on board within the next eight months.
“We’re sort of an architect,” he says. “The (potential) market is so huge that this is a job for the big guys that want to take it on.”