Natel Energy's New Approach to Hydropower


In the sleepy town of Freedom, Maine, a new renewable power source illustrates hydropower's potential to impact America's energy landscape.

In a lonely corner of northern New England, three country roads converge at a cluster of homes, making up the small town of Freedom, Maine. The surrounding natural beauty is more than enough to draw the eye, but it’s not necessarily where you’d expect to find an emerging technology with the potential to redraw the energy landscape of the United States.

Yet, thanks to Natel Energy, a once-purposeless sawmill dam in Freedom is now generating enough power to meet the energy needs of eight to ten homes in the small community, as well as a small school and restaurant. Working closely with the mill’s owner, the Natel team is using hydropower to help revitalize this small community.

Conjure up an image of sustainable energy and you’ll likely picture shiny solar panels or whirring wind turbines. What you probably won’t envision is hydropower, and for good reason. Despite the fact that it generates carbon-free energy, concentrated hydropower—like the large dams that block up the Colorado and Columbia rivers—has disastrous environmental consequences. Construction of traditional large-scale dams devastates ecosystems, disrupting the natural flow of rivers, blocking essential routes for fish migration, and more. They are also extraordinarily expensive to build. It’s no wonder that the United States has removed upwards of 500 dams since 2006.

But if hydropower can be designed to avoid detrimental externalities, it has huge potential to become a major source of green energy. And Natel has a solution. By redesigning the traditional hydropower turbine, Natel generates energy using smaller dams that do not obstruct waterways, have little to no environmental impact, and in some applications, can even rehabilitate damaged watersheds.

Natel CEO Gia Schneider is committed to hydropower implementation that centers on place-based innovation, like retrofitting the old sawmill in Freedom. There are existing small dams across the country that are no longer being used as a power source or were constructed for non-power purposes, and over time most of these dams have become wasted infrastructure. By retrofitting them to generate new, clean energy, Natel is working with communities to leverage the infrastructure they already have.

Freedom’s mill project is small, but Natel’s potential is vast. By Natel’s estimations, the technology could power around 10 percent of the United States’ current energy demand. Watch the film above to learn more about the mill at Freedom and the champions behind it.