In the spring of 2016 the Flemish start-up, Turbulent, installed Europe’s first cost‑effective microhydro power plant in Tielt-Winge, Belgium. KIC InnoEnergy is helping Turbulent’s young, Antwerp‑based entrepreneurs to conquer the (global) market with their trail-blazing turbine.
A hundred or so people gather in Tielt-Winge near one of the outbuildings on the grounds of Houwaart Castle, on a cold but sunny morning. The TV cameras are there, as is the Flemish Minister for Economy, Science and Innovation, Philippe Muyters. It’s only logical. Europe’s first ever cost‑effective microhydro power plant is about to be switched on today.
The compact and sustainable turbine is the brainchild of Jasper Verreydt and Geert Slachmuylders, the two Antwerp-based entrepreneurs behind the business start-up, Turbulent.
“At the present time there are about 230 litres of water passing through the turbine every second. The annual output from this micro power plant is enough to supply three or four households, so it will pay for itself in about five years,” says Verreydt.
The technological first in Tielt-Winge replaces a traditional, wooden watermill and was ordered by a
private individual. The green energy it generates will be used for household consumption straight away.
Stable green energy
Turbulent’s microhydro power plants are pioneering in more ways than one. They supply green energy almost without interruption, because water power, unlike solar and wind energy, is constantly available. The innovative technology brings added advantages.
“Our full understanding of the dynamics behind a vortex has enabled us to reduce our turbines to half the size of those made by our competitors. We have also managed to extract energy from rivers with lower differences in height than you would normally expect for hydropower. A drop of one and a half to three metres does the job,” says Verreydt.
In other words, Turbulent’s next generation of hydro power plants will offer high energy security with access for all, be easy to transport and install and be low maintenance. Not only that, but their impact on the surrounding ecosystem is negligible.
“It would be nice if, rather than individually, we could sell our turbines in networks of say a hundred, which we could then place over a larger area and allow to communicate with each other, so they adjust to the end users’ energy demands. We could then count the large power companies among our customers,” continues Verreydt.
Support to the finish line
Klaas Schuring, CEO of KIC InnoEnergy Benelux, explains why this is a realisatic ambition and it is achievable in the near future.
“That’s exactly why KIC InnoEnergy is supporting this start‑up. Turbulent has developed and patented an innovative technology. A product has come to life through their knowhow, but now there is a market to be won and KIC InnoEnergy helps them across the finish line. Conquering the (global) market is actually quite a task.“
Schuring is present at the product’s introduction in Tielt-Winge and is enthusiastic about the opportunities ahead:
“Benelux is a delta area with lots of rivers. I see a place for this technology: local, European and international,” he said.
Minister Philippe Muyters is equally as positive:
“It is great when research makes it up off the bench and gets out into the real world. The young entrepreneurs at Turbulent have taken a simple natural principle and used it to find a technological solution for a pressing societal problem. Their microhydro power plant guarantees a reliable, affordable and sustainable supply of energy, even in the most remote areas. And their business model is fully scalable. I am proud that Flanders has had the opportunity to support this,” he said.
Simple is best
Jasper Verreydt explains why the simple operating principle behind the microhydro power plant has been met with resounding approval:
“What we have here is biomimicry, which means that we have taken our inspiration from nature, from the physics of the vortex to be precise. Natural vortices behind bridge pillars on rivers help dissipate the energy and allow the water surface to flatten out again. This is how the idea of recuperating the energy occurred to us.”
Verreydt and Slachmuylders complement each other’s work and gained KIC InnoEnergy’s support at an early stage.
“Geert studied electromechanics as an industrial engineer, and wrote his thesis on vortex technology. My background is in economics and law and I met Geert at a student union business plan event. In the summer of 2014, when our business idea was still in its early stages, we applied for, and were accepted into, the KIC InnoEnergy Highway®. The weekly consultations with our coach at KIC InnoEnergy has helped us focus on the essentials,“ said Verreydt.
Turbulent was set up in January 2015 and their prototype won the prestigious International Startup Nations Summit Award in Mexico in the same year.
“We were voted the best start-up in the world. The most important thing was that this triumph earned us a meeting
with investors,” says Verreydt.
Through a Chilean incubator Turbulent got an opportunity to test the South American market.
“The systematic energy issues and power blackouts in that region give our product a lot of appeal among farmers
in remote areas. Our turbines offer them a cheap and environmentally friendly alternative to diesel engines. But our first port of call has to be the European market. Europe has plenty of existing infrastructure, such as old water mills and locks, at which our turbines are easy to install,“ explains Verreydt.